Early History of Diabetes

Diabetes was first described in an Egyptian manuscript back in 1500 BCE. It was described as “too great emptying of the urine”. The first cases of diabetes described were believed to be from type 1 diabetes. Some Indian physicians identified the disease around the same time and classified it as madhumeha which means honey urine. This is because they noticed that the urine from people with the disease would attract ants. The word “diabetes” or “to pass through” was used in 250 BCE by the Greeks. Later both type 1 and type 2 diabetes were identified as separate diseases. Type 1 diabetes was associated with young people and type 2 diabetes with obesity.

Diabetes’ first complete description was noted by the Greek doctor Aretaeus of Cappadocia during the first century. He also noted the excessive sugar that passed through the kidneys in the urine. In these times diabetes seems to have been a death sentence for anyone who had it. Aretaeus did attempt to treat it but the results were never good. He commented that those who had diabetes experienced short, disgusting and painful lives. Diabetes was also very rare in ancient times.

Avicenna, an ancient Persian polymath and who some consider to be the father of early modern medicine, wrote a detailed account in The Cannon of Medicine. He described the abnormal appetite and reduced sexual function of those with diabetes. He also confirmed the sweet taste of diabetic urine like Aretaeus. Avicenna also noted there were 2 forms diabetes a “primary” and “secondary”, these later became known as type 1 and type 2. Avicenna also described diabetic gangrene and treated diabetes using a mixture of lupine, trigonella, and zedoary seed. This was able to reduce the excretion of urine by a considerate amount. This treatment works so well that it is still prescribed in modern times. Avicenna was also the first person to give a very precise description of diabetes for the first time.

Asian countries also recognized the sweet urine symptom of diabetes, the Chinese described it as táng niǎo bìng which means sugar-urine disease. Matthew Dobson was a famous English physician who is now remembered for his work on diabetes. Matthew also confirmed the sweet taste in urine came from the excess amount of sugar in the urine and blood.
Diabetes has been recognized since ancient times and over the eras there have been different treatments known throughout the ancient world. Diabetes treatments were only understood experimentally. It was not until 1921 when Frederick Banting and Charles best first used insulin.

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