How Did Diabetics Manage Before Insulin Was Discovered?

Diabetes was one of the deadly diseases since ancient times. It was initially described in ancient Egypt around 3500 BCE. During that period it was called as “sugar sickness”.

In this article, we will discuss How Did Diabetics Manage Before Insulin Was Discovered?


How Did Diabetics Manage Before Insulin Was Discovered?

As insulin was not introduced at that time, people used to try to treat this disease their own way and eventually the patient had no other option but to die out of decay, coma, and ketoacidosis.

In the 18th century, doctors got to know that diet had a prominent role in diabetes. They thought modifications of the diet could be beneficial in the management of diabetes.

They adopted a diet deficient carbohydrate and rich in protein intake to help diabetics.

Before the arrival of insulin, doctors promoted a kind of diet called as “starvation diet”. In this diet, the patients were subjected to repeated fasting and undernourishment for a prolonged period.

It was not a cure but an advance treatment of diabetes mellitus, which could prolong the life of a diabetic patient or give them some relief from symptoms.

Calorie deficient diet no doubt give some relief to diabetics but by reducing the blood glucose level, but long-term fasting can be hazardous.


Frederick Allen and his experiments on diabetes

Famous American physicians Frederick Allen and Elliott Joslin were the leading diabetologists in the 19th century. They call this death due to starvation “inanition”.

It’s now proved that consumption of a calorie deficient diet is beneficial for diabetics who are overweight. Consumption of less calorie diet by normal and less body weight diabetics for longer can subject them to infection because they gradually lose the resistance to infection.

Physician Allen realized that diabetes was only a blood sugar disorder but a  metabolic disorder that had affected a major chunk of the population in the world.

He developed a new kind of diet deficient in calorie but rich in fat and protein. The diet he developed was less in carbohydrates as carbohydrate is the rich source of glucose.

In the early night nineteenth century, he treated 100 diabetics with this diet at Rockefeller Hospital.

This was a revolutionary diet plan for diabetics. Many specialists around the world started prescribing this diet including Elliot Joslin, a most famous diabetologist at that time.


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Allen developed this special kind of diet by experimenting with different animals like rat, dogs etc.  He initially induced diabetes in them by removing a major part of the pancreas.

Earlier it was known to the scientist that completely removing the pancreas leads to severe diabetes and ultimately death.

However, Allen removed just a major part of the pancreas which induced a milder type of chronic diabetes which was almost similar to diabetes in human beings. Allen then experimented with the diet he developed.

He measured the glucose levels in the urine and analyzed how fat, protein and carbohydrate diet affecting the glucose level.

After all the rigorous research for a long period, he published his findings in 1913. His Noble work came to the attention of Rockefeller Institute.

Rockefeller Institute was one of the leading institution dedicated to doing research on metabolic diseases. Allen was recruited by the institute to carry out his research work and extend his work further in the Rockefeller Institute.

The diet developed by Allen didn’t cure diabetes. The calorie-restricted diet brought the patient to starvation and relieved some of the symptoms of diabetes as well as prolonged the life of diabetics.

Physicians around the world prescribed his diet and It pronged the life of more than thousands of people until Insulin was discovered and saved their life from the fatal disease.

In 1918 Allen started his own clinic, where he treated diabetics and patients suffering from other metabolic diseases as well as carried out his own research work.

Elizabeth Hughes, the daughter of Charles Evans Hughes, Governor of New York was one of the famous patients of Allen. Elizabeth developed diabetes at a very early age of 11.

At that time she weighed 75 pounds. Elizabeth was subjected to a low-calorie diet along with fasting as prescribed by Allen.

She lost 20 pounds from fasting and diet. Her calorie intake was increased as she was free from glycosuria as a result of which she regained some weight.

However, after a few days, she deteriorated miserably and her weight was down to just 45 pounds. She was so weak and thin.

Fortunately, during that period Frederick Banting, a Canadian doctor discovered insulin and Allen was given the first sample of insulin to carry out his research work.

Mother of Elizabeth insisted Allen to include Elizabeth Allen as a trial patient. Elizabeth received doses of insulin and recovered miraculously.

She regained weight and became as fit as before she developed diabetes. She graduated from Barnard college and got married. She had children and had an active life while on insulin. At the age of 73, she died due to pneumonia.

The discovery of Insulin by Frederick Banting was life-saving for diabetics. It was no more death sentence for diabetics but the patients need to be on insulin for lifelong.

The mechanism behind diabetes was not properly known to physicians.

Now more research we’re carried out and reasons for type 1 and type 2 diabetes were described in detail. Still, further research is being carried out to find a cure or better management of diabetes.


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