By a show of hands how many of you have type 1 diabetes? How many of you know the history of type 1 diabetes?  I knew nothing about the history of type 1 diabetes either, so in honor of Diabetes Awareness Month I decided I was going to find out! The history of type 1 diabetes is pretty cool, and by cool I mean super interesting, because let’s face it – no disease is cool.

1500 BC Egypt

Let’s travel back to 1500 BC Egypt where the earliest record of type 1 diabetes is believed to be documented.


The Ebers Papyrus is one of the oldest preserved medical documents [1]. It is a 110 page scroll that contains over 700 medicinal remedies, spells to fend away disease, and detailed chapters on everything from skin problems to mental disorders…and yes, even type 1 diabetes. In the Ebers Papyrus there is a reference to a disease that causes a “great emptying of the urine” and extreme weight loss. It then goes on to list a series of remedies that are specific for children with the disease [2].

Around this same time in India, Hindu writings make note of a mysterious emaciating disease in which the urine of the diseased person is so sweet that it attracts ants, giving it the nickname madhumeha (which translates to “honey urine”).

250 BC

A Greek physician named Apollonius coins the term diabetes mellitus: “diabetes” meaning to go through or siphon because of the disease’s ability to drain the patient of more fluid than they can consume, and “mellitus” meaning honeyed or sweet.

11th Century

Diagnosis is made by “water tasters” aka people who drank the urine of those suspected of having diabetes [3]. No, I’m not kidding. At this time there is still no way to manage the disease. Death usually occurred within days of diagnosis.


Low carb – high fat – high protein diet is introduced to diabetic patients as treatment after John Rollo discovered patients symptoms worsening after eating starchy foods.

About 50 years later French physician, Priory, advises  patients to eat excess amounts of sugar as a treatment. Two steps forward, one step back.  Sigh…

1889 Discovering the role of the Pancreases

In 1889 Joseph Von Mering and Oskar Minkowski discovered the role of pancreas in diabetes. They found that when they removed a dogs pancreas it developed diabetes.

20 Years later, in 1910, Edward Sharpey-Schafer discovered that diabetes resulted specifically from lack of insulin.

The Birth of Insulin

In 1921 Frederick Banting and Charles Best furthered the work of Von Mering and Minkowsk. After removing the dog’s pancreas they then gave the dog pancreatic islet extract (from healthy dogs) to demonstrate that they could reverse diabetes.

With the help of their chemist colleague Collip, they were able to purify the hormone insulin from the pancreas.

In January 1922 Leonard Thompson, age 14, became the first person to receive an injection of insulin to treat diabetes. Unfortunately, 13 years later, Thompson died at age 27 from pneumonia.

In May 1922 the mass production of insulin begins.

In August 1922 Elizabeth Hughes is one of the first patients to be treated with insulin.  At the time of treatment, Hughes was 13 years old, weighed 45lbs, and was so emaciated that she could barely walk.

Elizabeth Hughes  Elizabeth Hughes Adult

After starting insulin therapy Hughes lived another 61 years. She received over 42,000 insulin shots (which estimates to be 1.8 shots daily), had three children, and lived to the age of 73 – dying of a heart attack.

The history of type 1 diabetes really takes off after this!

In 1925 patients were able to test their sugar (via urine) from home. After mixing 8 drops of urine with Benedict’s solution the patient would boil the mixture for 5 minutes. Based on the color of the mixture the patient would know if they were expelling sugar in their urine or not.

benedicts lilly insulin kit

In the late 1940’s glucose testing advances to a “dip-and-read” urine test; this time allowing patients to see a range of sugar in their urine.

In 1959 there is a distinction between two kinds of diabetes: type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

The first blood glucose strips are introduced to the market in 1964. The patient would put a drop of blood on the strip, let set for 1 minute, then washed off. The color on the strip would then be compared to a color chart to determine a ballpark range of blood glucose levels.

The first pancreas transplant is performed in 1966.

1970 – Ames introduces the first blood glucose meter. However, it was only allowed to be used in doctors offices.

ames blood glucose meter 1970

Insulin Pumps

In the 1970’s, hospitals rolled out the first ever insulin pump which was called Biostater. It was intended for hospital use only, to treat DKA patients. The Biostater would measure blood glucose levels and dispense insulin in 5 minute increments.

first insulin pump

Researchers at Yale University saw how effective the Biostater was and thought: why not make this machine portable and for the first time put diabetes management into the patients hands?

The first portable insulin pump wasn’t an insulin pump at all, but in fact a chemotherapy pump for cancer patients. Chemotherapy pump researchers used that same technology to manufacture insulin pumps for diabetics. The pumps weren’t pretty… or very reliable, but they were smaller which allowed the patient to be more active than a cancer patient would be with the chemotherapy pump.

insulin pump technology

Since the 1970’s meters, pens, and pumps have changed drastically. I could (and probably should) do a post solely about the progression of insulin pumps because the information is so fascinating! And that leads me to my next topic…

What does the future bring?

A cure in the next 7-10 years? LOL

I sure hope so!

Did you think this post on the history of type 1 diabetes was interesting? Share it with someone you think would appreciate it!

a brief history of type 1 diabetes

If you love diabetes technology then you might be interested in my review of the Dexcom G5 CGM


  1. Denisha February 4, 2017 at 9:49 pm - Reply

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  2. Brian P February 5, 2017 at 1:00 pm - Reply

    Neat. Didn’t realize type 1 had so much history.

  3. Erin March 4, 2017 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    Truly interesting article. I’m excited to share it with my T1 daughter! She often feels “alone”… but I didn’t realize T1 had so much history.

    • T1D Living March 6, 2017 at 8:25 am - Reply

      Thank you Erin! I learned so much while doing research for this article! I hope she likes it 🙂

  4. Beth June 13, 2017 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. I have often wondered since my son was diagnosed a little over a year ago how diabetes has been handled in years past. I will share this information with my history-loving T1D son!

    • T1D Living June 14, 2017 at 10:34 am - Reply

      The history is so interesting! I hope your son likes it 🙂

  5. Ann February 5, 2018 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    I was diagnosed in 1967. At that time we had urine testing, and we boiled our glass syringe and needle to sterilize them. We also had to sharpen the needle periodically. Shortly after, disposable needles were available to place on the glass syringe, but it was 25 gauge, 5/8′! (Very thick and long, and hurt a lot, not to mention the pits it caused in the skin) Home blood testing seemed like a miracle, and so improved control.
    Now I have a CGM and an insulin pump. So many improvements! But still no cure! (sigh)
    There is a researcher in Boston, Dr. Denise Faustman, who has cured T1 Diabetes. But the FDA has not approved it yet. Google her and read about her work.

    • T1D Living February 8, 2018 at 3:02 pm - Reply

      Wow, that is some cool history! It is so amazing to see how far treatment has come. I haven’t hear of Dr. Denise Faustman, I will have to check her out. Thanks!

  6. Sagar Chaudhary July 22, 2019 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Nice Blog, it is very helpful to us

    Best general physician in noida

  7. thediabeticsurvivor December 11, 2019 at 10:39 pm - Reply

    Fantastic history of Diabetes. I had no clue about ancient Egypt manuscripts! Thanks.

    • T1D Living January 3, 2020 at 2:14 pm - Reply

      Thank you! and You’re welcome 🙂

  8. Tina July 4, 2020 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the information. I’m 53 years old and I’ve had type 1 for 33 years.

  9. Jody August 8, 2020 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    The first insulin pump is really something!!!

  10. Mary Beth August 10, 2020 at 11:29 am - Reply

    I was diagnosed in December of 1978, when we had to test our urine with acid tablets… Later we got blood testing machines. I went on the pump about 15 years ago. I was up to 6 shots a day. The pump is a real blessing. Thank you Rachel for this retrospective on how things have changed. 🙂

    • T1D Living August 12, 2020 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      that’s so crazy! diabetes tech has come a long way!

  11. Jackie February 27, 2024 at 1:40 pm - Reply

    Hi, Rachel!

    Thank you for sharing such an informative post. It’s amazing to think that people were aware of diabetes in ancient Egypt. It would be interesting to know what treatment they used. That could be a great follow up post.

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