Diabetes Before Insulin and What Banting House NHSC is Doing for World Diabetes Day

People with diabetes have been able to live better lives since Sir Frederick Banting and his team developed insulin in 1922. Insulin is a relatively recent discovery, however, and there are cases of diabetes that have been documented as far back as 1552 BCE. So what would it have been like to live with diabetes before this treatment was available? Were there any other effective ways to treat the disease or postpone its effects?

Before insulin, diabetes was a death sentence for patients. People with diabetes would become emaciated because their bodies did not produce enough insulin to use sugar effectively and they would eventually die from the disease. There were some treatments that doctors prescribed to attempt to postpone the inevitable, however. One of the standard treatments was called the Allen Diet, where patients could only eat 500-600 calories a day of proteins and vegetables. The idea behind this diet was to postpone the effects of diabetes while patients waited for a cure to be found. Some physicians, such as Elliot Joslin, also had patients follow a regular exercise program and specialized diet to help cope with the disease. Even with these ways to help control diabetes, the life expectancy of a person once they were diagnosed was only about three years.

Researchers around the world were working to try to find a cure for diabetes. They knew that the pancreas had something to do with the disease and scientists at the University of Strasbourg in France (Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering) showed in 1889 that removing a dog’s pancreas produced diabetes in the dog. However, it was Banting’s hypothesis that finally led to a treatment that could control diabetes and ensure that being diagnosed did not mean you would not survive. There is a great set of photographs at Banting House NHSC that shows a little boy who had been diagnosed with diabetes before Banting’s discovery and then after he had received insulin to help manage the disease. The difference between the two is amazing; the first shows him as emaciated and in very poor health whereas the second shows him as a healthy young boy. This is just one example of how much of an impact the discovery of insulin has had for people with diabetes. Below is another set of photos that shows the difference insulin made:

This is a photo of a young boy with diabetes before receiving insulin treatments.
This is a photo of a young boy with diabetes before receiving insulin treatments.
This is the same boy after he received insulin treatments.
This is the same boy after he received insulin treatments.

Banting’s discovery changed the way that people with diabetes manage their condition, but insulin is still not a total cure for the disease. That’s why celebrating events such as World Diabetes Day is still important.

World Diabetes Day is Friday, November 14th!
World Diabetes Day is Friday, November 4th!

So what is Banting House NHSC doing on November 14th? To celebrate Banting’s birthday and his work, we will be hosting a free Open House from 1-3 pm. There will be self-guided tours as well as activities where you can create your own Birthday Card for Dr. Banting as well as donate used clothing to the Canadian Diabetes Association’s Clothesline program that supports community service activities.

From 6-8 pm there will be a “Healthy Breakfast” display with information on making healthy and fun food choices to start your mornings as well as a short presentation on what Banting’s work has done and what it still means to people today. There will also be a scavenger hunt for kids and sugar-free cake and hot chocolate. Banting House will be participating in the Blue Monument Challenge that supports diabetes awareness worldwide, too. We would love to have you join us for these celebrations!

This post was written by Taryn Dewar, Graduate Research Assistant at Banting House NHSC. Taryn is a Master’s candidate in Public History at Western University.


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