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History of diabetes: Facts you might not know

Many people don’t know that diabetes was first referred to over 3,000 years ago.1 And that decades ago, managing blood sugar was much more difficult than it is today. We’ve put together some facts about the history of diabetes that you might not know. There’s a lot to learn, and it’s exciting to realise how far the understanding and treatment options for diabetes have come.

When was diabetes first recorded?

From ancient Greece to India, diabetes was discovered and recorded as far back as 1500 B.C.2 Here are some interesting facts from around the world about the early references of diabetes.

Ancient Egypt: The ancient Egyptians mentioned the symptoms of diabetes in Egyptian manuscripts that date back to 1500 B.C.3

Ancient India: At around the 5th-6th century B.C., physicians called diabetes madhumeha, which translates to ‘honey urine’ since the urine of people with diabetes attracted ants.2 In fact, to test for diabetes physicians would analyse urine to see if ants would be attracted to the urine for the sugar content.2 Today, we know this is because extra sugar in the bloodstream is released from the body through the urine.

Ancient Greece: It wasn’t until the 2nd Century AD that Aretaeus – a great physician during the Greco-Roman period – officially introduced the term ‘diabetes’, which comes from the Greek word diabaino, meaning “to pass through” and refers to fluid passing through the body.4

What did the early treatment of diabetes look like?

Fact: Early Greek physicians told their patients to exercise to treat diabetes. They recommended that people do this on horseback with the idea it would reduce excessive urination.1

Many different early treatments were recommended by Greek physicians like Aretaeus, English physician Thomas Willis, and other early scientists and doctors. Some of them included:1,5

  • Foods that were easy to digest like mutton or veal
  • Tobacco
  • A “non irritating” carbohydrate and milk diet, such as rice and milk
  • A carb-free diet
  • Opium
  • Wormseed, lupin and fenugreek powders
  • Fasting

Insulin, insulin resistance and the pancreas

Significant research in the late 1800s led to Jean De Meyer searching for a hormone that was called ‘insulin’ in 1909. Then, in 1916, Edward Sharpey-Shafer came up with the term ‘insulin’ as a substance from the pancreas that was responsible for diabetes.5

In the early 1920s, Sir Frederick G Banting, Charles H Best and JJR Macleod discovered insulin at the University of Toronto, it was purified by James B Collip.5

Shortly after, in 1922, Leonard Thompson became the first ever patient to receive an insulin injection. At the age of 14 he was admitted to hospital close to going into a diabetic coma. Following his initial injection, he continued to use insulin and lived an additional 13 years after that first treatment.1

Sir Harold Percival Himsworth published his research in 1936 that mentioned the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.6 His view was that many people with the condition had insulin resistance instead of insulin deficiency.

Modern day diabetes management

Scientists created Humulin, the first human-based insulin, in 1978.7 This insulin is identical in structure to the insulin produced by the human body. It was nearly another 20 years before short-acting insulin was available.7 In 1996, Lispro became available, which works around 15 minutes after the injection and continues to work for two to four hours.

The first blood glucose monitors weren’t readily available for home use until the 1980s.8 They gave people with diabetes an accurate way to keep track of their blood sugar levels, making it easier to self-manage blood glucose.

As for Insulin pens, these became widely available in 1986, offering a convenient, safe way to deliver accurate doses of insulin.1

Pumps were originally invented in the 1960s, and were initially the size of ‘army backpacks’ – but they became smaller and more readily available in the 1990s.

Where we are today

While there’s still no cure for diabetes, a look through history shows we’ve come a long way, and treatments are continuing to develop. Systems, insulin pumps and blood glucose monitors are advancing, alongside our understanding of diabetes. With these advances more people are living full lives while managing their diabetes and we hope that this will only increase in the years to come.


  1. Medical News Today. Diabetes: Past treatments, new discoveries.
  2. Lakhtakia R. The History of Diabetes Mellitus. SQUMJ. 2013 Aug; 13(3): 368–370.
  3. Defeat Diabetes Foundation. Diabetes History.
  4. Karamanou M et al. Milestone in the history of diabetes mellitus: The main contributors. World J Diabetes. 2016 Jan; 7(1): 1–7.
  5. American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Research and Care Through the Ages.
  6. Polonsky KS et al. The past 200 years in diabetes. NEJM. 2012; 367:1332-1340.
  7. Quianzon CC. History of Insulin. J Community Hosp Intern Med Perspect. 2012; 2(2): 10.3402/jchimp.v2i2.18701.
  8. Irl B. Hirsch. History of Glucose Monitoring.


The views expressed in the Accu-Chek blog are not necessarily those of Roche Diabetes Care Limited or our publishers. The content is provided for general information only. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely – you must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content. Although we make reasonable efforts to ensure that the content is up to date, we make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content is accurate, complete or up-to-date.



20 May 2024