Diabetes Legends: Dr. Robert Daniel Lawrence – the UK’s first prominent diabetes physician

Dr. Robert Daniel Lawrence developed diabetes after a splinter of bone flew into his eye, which led him to dedicate his life in the pursuit of effective diabetes treatments.

Lawrence was a co-founder of The Diabetic Association (now Diabetes UK), of which he was chairman until 1961, while the Robert Lawrence medal is awarded to people who have lived with diabetes for 60 years.

We examine the life of one of the most prominent physicians in the world and how his research shaped diabetes treatment as we know it today.

Developing diabetes

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1892, Lawrence wanted to become a surgeon and achieved high academic results. While studying for his medical degree, he was appointed President of the Students’ Representative Council.

Lawrence trained for his degree at King’s College Hospital, London. However, when a splinter of bone entered Lawrence’s eye while he was practising a mastoid operation, an infection left his eye permanently damaged.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with diabetes. Lawrence moved to Florence – insulin had not yet been discovered and his prognosis was poor – for what he believed would be the quick culmination of his short life.

In 1923, Lawrence received notification that insulin had been discovered by Frederick Banting and Charles Best. He subsequently drove to Europe across London to try the new treatment.

Diabetes research

Following the success of his insulin treatment, Lawrence vigilantly pursued effective diabetes treatments. As well as researching how insulin improved the prognosis of diabetes patients, he also investigated the carbohydrates in foods, following Frederick Allen’s research into how the undernutrition of diabetic patients postponed their deaths.

After setting up his clinic at King’s College Hospital, Lawrence realised diet was an important part of treatment. In the 1920s he published two books: The Diabetic Life and The Diabetic ABC.

They were easy to read and set achievable targets for patients. A 17th edition of The Diabetic Life was released in 1965, which has been transcribed into many languages.

Lawrence’s London clinic developed popularity quickly, while Lawrence continually sought to expand his research to provide practical ways for people to self-manage their diabetes.

In 1932, Lawrence established the Department of Diabetes at King’s College Hospital, where he examined how the effects of exercise and diet affected his own diabetes management routines. New batches of insulin were also tested before being issued to patients.

Forming The Diabetic Association

Lawrence would conceive the idea of an association in which diabetes research would coincide with patient welfare and education.

In 1934, alongside H.G.Wells, who was one of his patients, Lawrence formed The Diabetic Association, which went on to assist in funding scientific research. Dr Hans Kosterlitz at the Physiology Department of the University of Aberdeen was among the first to benefit from this funding.

When food was rationed in World War II, The Diabetic Association helped its members obtain more protein following the introduction of food rations. By the end of the war, Lawrence was widely regarded as the prominent physician of diabetes activity in the UK.

Kings’ Diabetic Department had become Britain’s largest research centre, with Lawrence also setting up a children’s diabetic clinic in 1939.

Lawrence’s legacy

Without Lawrence’s dedication to fielding new ideas for diabetes treatment, aspects such as carb counting, diet management and regular exercise may not be as prominent and knowingly beneficial as they are today.

Lawrence’s research also led to low-dose insulin infusion being used to treat diabetic ketoacidosis, while his work with Joseph Bornstein proved that juveniles with onset diabetes were insulin deficient, while maturity onset diabetics had detectable insulin levels.

In 1950s, alongside Wilfried Oakely, a physician, and obstretician Sir John Peel, Lawrence helped set up the first joint diabetes-pregnancy clinic. Lawrence also served as the first president of the International Diabetes Federation between 1950 and 1958. He chaired The Diabetic Association until 1961.

Dr. Robert Daniel Lawrence died in 1968. He is commemorated by the Robert Daniel Lawrence Medal, awarded to people with diabetes for 60 years, and a plaque at 10 Ferryhill Place, the home of his birth.

This blog was adapted from diapedia.org, kci.ac.uk and med-chi.co.uk

Picture: Wellcome Library, London

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Jack Woodfield

Jack is Editorial Manager of Diabetes.co.uk. He works hard, plays fair and sleeps whenever possible. He has type 1 diabetes, doesn't mind being called a "diabetic", and once won a talent show for dancing to Dario G’s 1997 hit “Sunchyme”.

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