Diabetes is a disease with an history that stretches back to 1500 BCE. An Egyptian manuscript written in 1552 BC describes a disease characterised by frequent urination and this is believed to be a description of type 1 diabetes. The text was written on an Egyptian papyrus.
Around the time when diabetes was described in Egypt, Indian physicians also identified diabetes. They noticed that people with a particular mysterious dsease passed on urine which attracted ants. The Indian physicians referred to this disease which also left people looking thin as honey urine.
In spite of the earlier descriptions which pointed to diabetes, the term ‘diabetes’ was never used until 250 BC when Greek physician, Apollonius of Memphis coined it. Diabetes had the meaning of siphoning. It referred to a disease which drained one’s body of more water than they could consume.
In 164 AD, Greek physician Galen of Pergamum diagnosed diabetes as a kidney disease. Galen practised medicine in Rome and was the personal physician of several Roman emperors. Diabetes was used as a collective term on ailments involving frequent urination and it was not until in the 400-500 AD when Indian physicians, Sushruta and Charaka, identified type 1 and type 2 diabetes as separate ailments.
Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia gave the first detailed clinical description of diabetes in the 1st century. He also had noted that diabetes was characterised by excessive urination. The term ‘mellitus’ would later be added to diabetes in the 1600s to differentiate it from diabetes insipidus. Mellitus is a Latin word which refers to honey. Although both diseases are characterised by frequent urination, diabetes mellitus and diabetes insipidus are two different diseases. Diabetes mellitus occurs in relation to blood sugar while diabetes insipidus is related to antidiuretic hormone production and nephron function.
In the Middle Ages, diabetes mellitus was also documented in Persia by Avicenna in his work, The Canon of Medicine. He wrote about the sweet taste of urine from patients with diabetes and changes in appetite and sexual functionality. Avicenna also identified a primary and a secondary type of diabetes and used treatment methods such as fenugreek and zedoary seeds on diabetes patients. He also precisely described diabetes insipidus but it was not until later on in 1674 when Thomas Willis differentiated between diabetes mellitus and diabetes insipidus.
In 1776, English physician Matthew Dobson confirmed that urine from patients with diabetes mellitus had a sweet taste. He attributed the sweet taste to the presence of too much sugar in the blood and urine. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean names for diabetes also point to the sweet taste of urine from patients with diabetes mellitus.
Even though treatments for diabetes were conducted since the early and middle ages, the pathogenesis of diabetes was never understood until in 1900 when experiments were conducted to ascertain the onset and development of diabetes.
Earlier on in the 1880s, it was discovered that pancreas could be playing a role in the occurrence of diabetes. In 1889, Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski found that dogs who had had their pancreas removed developed signs and symptoms of diabetes and died soon afterwards. Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer suggested in 1910 that diabetic persons could be lacking in a particular chemical produced by the pancreas. He called this chemical insulin. Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Herbert Best developed insulin treatment for diabetes in 1921. They purified insulin which had been extracted from bovine pancreas. Insulin was first administered on a patient in 1922. Eli Lilly and Company started mass production of insulin and many other patients were treated.