When the subject of Type 2 Diabetes is discussed, there seems to be a general view that it is a ‘modern day’ disease, which is very interesting as it actually dates back thousands of years.
The feeling that Type 2 Diabetes is a recent phenomenon comes from the fact that it is now so prevalent worldwide, with around 500,000,000 (yes, 500 MILLION!) people living with the disease, and who knows how many more that will develop it in the coming years.
So let’s delve in to the dim and distant past, and trace back the earliest records of how Diabetes Mellitus (we’ll explain what these two words mean a little later) came about.
The year is 1000BCE, or thereabouts. From hieroglypics, we know that the ancient Egyptians recognised a condition where the patient was observed with insatiable thirst and seeming constant urination – along with unexplained weightloss.
In ancient India, the term “Madhumeha” was given to this condition, and they devised the first known clinical tests for patients displaying diabetes symptoms, with the help from ants. If the ants were attracted to the excessive sugars in the patients urine, a diagnosis of Madhumeha (“honey urine”) was given. We know today that when blood sugar levels are raised in both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, the body will bring the kidneys in to play, and will try to excete these sugars through the urine.
At this time, though, there was just the one ‘type’, a differentiation between what we know as Type 1 and Type 2 had not been made.
The word “Diabetes” itself comes from the ancient Greek word for “syphon”, meaning “to pass through”, which is a nod to the fact that the patient urinated frequently. The earliest record of “Diabetes” first being used was around the year 250BCE by Apollonius of Memphis who observed patients appearing to be afflicte with a disease that drained them of more fluid than they drank.
Mellitus comes from the greek word “honeyed” or “sweet” – and hence we have the medical term “Diabetes Mellitus”.
It was around 2000 years ago that a distinction was established between the two different types, when it was recognised that a link between obesity and the disease known in India as Madhumeha existed – where the patient wasn’t losing weight as they had observed previously, but were overweight and obese. It became known as “the disease of affluence” at that time, and it was noted as being far more common than the other variation, what we now know today to be “Type 1 Diabetes”.
For many centuries, even as recent as the 1700’s, it was believed that Diabetes was a disease of the kidneys. In 1776, Matthew Dobson observed that the sweet taste of the urine of some people was due to the excessive sugars in the blood – and he noted that some with “Diabetes” died very quickly after diagnosis, whereas others tended to develop a chronic (long lasting) disease. This was likely the first hint that “Diabetes Mellitus” had at least two sub-groups.
By the late 18th/early 19th century, further experiments had taken place, including noting that dogs that had their pancreas removed developed diabetes, and hence links with the function of the pancreas were beginning to establish themselves.
In the early 1900’s, “Benedict’s Solution” was invented by Stanley Benedict to measure glucose levels in blood.
In 1936, Sir Harold Percival published a research paper that distinguished Diabetes in to the 2 different types we know today.