The Discovery that Changed Diabetes Forever - Knew Today

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The Discovery that Changed Diabetes Forever

Written by Chittaranjan Panda · 5 min read >

The word “Diabetes” has a fascinating and long history, originating from a blend of ancient Greek and Latin roots. Here’s a detailed look at its journey:

Greek Foundation

  • In the 2nd century AD, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a Greek physician, first used the term “diabetes” to describe the condition.
  • The word comes from the Greek verb “diabainein,” meaning “to pass through” or “siphon.”
  • Aretaeus observed an abnormally high volume of urine passing through patients, hence the comparison to a siphon constantly draining.

Latin Addition:

  • While the term “diabetes” captured the excessive urination, it didn’t specify the sweetness associated with the disease.
  • This changed in the 17th century when Thomas Willis, an English physician, added the word “mellitus” to “diabetes.”
  • “Mellitus” comes from the Latin word for “honeyed” or “sweet”, reflecting the observed sweetness in diabetic urine.

Combining the Roots

  • Thus, “Diabetes Mellitus” was born, representing both excessive urination and sweetness as key characteristics of the disease.
  • This combined term has been used ever since, remaining the standard medical terminology for the condition.

Traces of earlier observations:

  • It’s worth noting that awareness of the disease goes even further back.
  • Ancient Egyptian and Indian medical texts around 1500-500 BC described similar symptoms, using terms like “madhumeha” (honey urine) in Sanskrit and referring to the attraction of ants to the urine.

Evolution of understanding:

  • While the focus of the name was initially on urination and sweetness, our understanding of diabetes has evolved significantly.
  • Today, we classify it into different types based on underlying causes, like Type 1 and Type 2, while acknowledging the complex metabolic processes involved.

So, “Diabetes Mellitus” stands as a testament to the history of medical observations, combining ancient Greek vocabulary with later Latin clarification, and now serving as a globally recognized term for this complex disease.

A Journey Through Time: The Evolving Landscape of Diabetes Treatment

The history of diabetes treatment is a captivating saga, mirroring humanity’s evolving understanding of the disease itself. From ancient remedies to cutting-edge technologies, let’s embark on a journey through time, exploring the milestones that have shaped how we manage diabetes today.

Ancient Beginnings:

  • 3000 BC: The earliest mentions of diabetes-like symptoms appear in Egyptian and Indian medical texts, with treatments focusing on dietary restrictions and herbal remedies.

Medieval Misconceptions:

  • 1000-1500 AD: Understanding of diabetes remains limited, with misconceptions about its cause and nature prevalent. Treatments often involve bloodletting, purging, and other ineffective practices.

The Dawn of Scientific Inquiry:

  • 1674 AD: Thomas Willis coined the term “diabetes mellitus,” highlighting the characteristic sweetness of urine. This marks a shift towards more accurate diagnosis and scientific exploration.

Unveiling the Pancreas:

  • 1889 AD: Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski identify the pancreas as the key organ involved in diabetes, paving the way for more targeted treatment approaches.

The Insulin Revolution:

  • 1921 AD: Frederick Banting and Charles Best successfully isolated insulin from the pancreas, marking a revolutionary turning point in diabetes management.
  • 1922 AD: Leonard Thompson becomes the first person to receive an insulin injection, showcasing its life-saving potential.

Refining Insulin Therapy:

  • 1930s-1960s: The development of various types of insulin with varying durations of action allows for more personalized treatment regimens.

Beyond Insulin:

  • 1950s onwards: Introduction of oral medications like sulfonylureas for Type 2 diabetes expands treatment options beyond insulin injections.

Technological Advancements:

  • The 1980s onwards: Development of insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitoring systems provide greater control and data for people with diabetes.

Personalized Medicine:

  • 2000s-present: Increasing focus on understanding the genetic and environmental factors contributing to diabetes, paving the way for personalized medicine and targeted therapies.

The Future of Diabetes Care:

The journey of diabetes treatment is a testament to scientific progress, unwavering human dedication, and the enduring hope for a future free from the burden of this disease. While challenges remain, the unwavering pursuit of knowledge and innovation continues to illuminate the path toward a brighter future for millions living with diabetes.

Charting the Course: A Historical Voyage through Diabetes Diagnosis


From ancient observations to cutting-edge technologies, the history of diagnosing diabetes is a fascinating tale of human ingenuity and scientific progress. Let’s set sail through time, exploring the landmarks that have shaped how we identify and understand this multifaceted disease.

Early Glimmers:

  • 1500 BC: Ancient Egyptian and Indian medical texts describe symptoms like excessive thirst and urination, hinting at the presence of diabetes-like conditions.
  • 300 BC: Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia coins the term “diabetes,” drawing a comparison to a siphon due to the high volume of urine passed by patients.

Medieval Misconceptions:

  • 1000-1500 AD: The understanding of diabetes remains shrouded in mystery, with treatments often ineffective and based on inaccurate ideas about the disease’s cause.

The Dawn of Scientific Inquiry:

  • 1674 AD: Thomas Willis adds the term “mellitus” to “diabetes,” recognizing the sweetness of urine as a key symptom. This marks a shift towards a more precise diagnosis.

Unveiling the Pancreas:

  • 1889 AD: Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski identify the pancreas as the organ responsible for regulating blood sugar, laying the foundation for targeted diagnosis and treatment.

Urine Tests Take Center Stage:

  • 19th-20th century: Urine tests become the primary method for diagnosing diabetes, and detecting the presence of glucose. Fehling’s test and Benedict’s test are widely used.

Blood Sugar Takes the Lead:

  • 1920s: The development of blood sugar measurement techniques allows for more accurate and convenient diagnosis, paving the way for better monitoring and treatment.

The Technological Revolution:

  • 1960s onwards: Glucometers become increasingly accessible, enabling self-monitoring of blood sugar levels for improved diabetes management.
  • 1980s onwards: Continuous glucose monitoring systems (CGMs) provide real-time data on blood sugar fluctuations, further empowering individuals with diabetes.

The Future of Diabetes Diagnosis:

  • Non-invasive methods: Research on breath tests, saliva tests, and even sweat tests for diagnosing diabetes is ongoing, offering the potential for less invasive and more convenient options.
  • Artificial intelligence: Machine learning algorithms are being developed to analyze vast amounts of data from CGMs and other sources, potentially aiding in early diagnosis and personalized treatment plans.

The history of diabetes diagnosis reflects a remarkable journey of scientific discovery and technological innovation. While challenges remain, the unwavering pursuit of knowledge and new technologies continues to chart the course towards a future where diagnosing and managing diabetes becomes even more accurate, convenient, and effective.

A Life-Saving Journey: The History of Insulin in Detail

The story of insulin is a testament to scientific perseverance and its life-saving impact on millions. Before we delve into the specifics, let’s set the stage:

Before Insulin:

  • Diabetes (then known as “diabetes mellitus”) had been documented for centuries, with devastating consequences. The disease, with its uncontrolled blood sugar levels and debilitating symptoms, often led to death within months or years.
  • Treatments were largely ineffective, focusing on managing symptoms like excessive thirst and urination with bloodletting, dietary restrictions, and herbal remedies.

1889: Unlocking the Pancreas’s Secret

  • Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski made a breakthrough discovery: removing the pancreas from dogs led to diabetes-like symptoms, suggesting its crucial role in blood sugar regulation.

1921: A Serendipitous Revelation

  • Frederick Banting, a young Canadian surgeon, inspired by his friend’s diabetic brother, pursued the idea of isolating a pancreatic “anti-diabetic” substance.
  • Finally, their persistence paid off. Injecting an extract into a diabetic dog dramatically lowered its blood sugar, marking a critical turning point.

1922: The First Glimmers of Hope

  • Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy on the brink of death from diabetes, became the first human to receive an insulin injection.
  • While the initial extract wasn’t perfect, it offered a glimpse of hope, leading to further research and refinement.

The Insulin Revolution:

  • James Collip joined the team, significantly improving the purification and effectiveness of insulin extracts.
  • By the 1930s, commercially available insulin had transformed diabetes management. Patients were no longer condemned to a short life, but could now manage their condition and live longer, healthier lives.

Beyond the Discovery:

  • The journey of insulin didn’t end with its discovery. Decades of research and development followed:
    • Types of insulin: Different types with varying durations of action were developed, allowing for more personalized treatment regimens.
    • Delivery methods: Injectable insulin remained the standard for decades, but advancements like insulin pumps and pens offered greater convenience and flexibility.
    • Genetic engineering: In the 1980s, recombinant human insulin, produced by bacteria, revolutionized production and availability.

The Road Ahead:

  • Research continues to refine insulin therapy and explore alternatives:
    • Artificial pancreas systems: These closed-loop systems automatically adjust insulin delivery based on real-time blood sugar data, promising even tighter control.
    • Stem cell research: The potential of regenerating insulin-producing pancreatic cells holds immense promise for a future free from insulin dependence.

The discovery of insulin stands as a beacon of scientific triumph, forever changing the course of diabetes management. From a desperate search for a cure to a life-saving treatment used by millions today, the story of insulin is a testament to human ingenuity and its enduring impact on global health.

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Written by Chittaranjan Panda
Dr. Chittaranjan Panda is a distinguished medical professional with a passion for spreading knowledge and empowering individuals to make informed health and wellness decisions. With a background in Pathology, Dr. Chittaranjan Panda has dedicated his career to unraveling the complexities of the human body and translating medical jargon into easily understandable concepts for the general public. Profile
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