History of Diabetes: Elizabeth Hughes, Insulin Pioneer

One of the very first users of insulin injections lived to be 73.  That amazes me since most of her life was lived before we could keep close track of blood sugar levels with home glucose monitoring.  She died of pneumonia in 1981.  She was a type 1 diabetic since age 11.

Insulin was discovered in Canada

Her name was Elizabeth Hughes, daughter of a New York governor.  She was started in insulin around 1922. 

I read about her in Nutrition Journal earlier this year.  Most of the article was about the use of starvation diets for diabetics in the pre-insulin era .  Ever heard of the Joslin Clinic, a preeminent U.S. diabetes center?  Elliott Joslin was once an advocate of these starvation diets.  Insulin changed that.

The article notes that before insulin therapy was available, the standard diabetic diet was low-carbohydrate, avoiding sugars and starches, sometimes called the “animal diet.”

I also learned that urine became easily testable for sugar in the early part of the 20th century, if not earlier.  Before this, many cases of diabetes (mostly type 2) were undetectable or misdiagnosed.

Even today, type 1 diabetes is a hard row to hoe.  Before 1922, it was even worse.  As bad as it can get.

Steve Parker, M.D.


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