Elizabeth Hughes was diagnosed with diabetes in 1919 at the age of 11. She was the daughter of Charles Evans Hughes who was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, ran as the Republican nominee in the 1916 U.S. Presidential election (he was narrowly defeated by President Wilson), and was appointed Secretary of State in 1921 under President Warren G. Harding. Being the daughter of such a famous man allowed her access to the best treatments possible, however it also meant that her diabetes was closely reported on by the press.
After her initial diagnosis, Elizabeth was treated by Dr. Allen, the man responsible for the Allen diet which was the leading treatment for individuals with diabetes at the time. Three years on the Allen diet caused Elizabeth to drop in weight from 75 pounds to under 50 pounds. Her family hoped that a new treatment would be discovered soon. When word of Dr. Banting’s insulin trials reached the U.S. press, Elizabeth’s mother, Antoinette Hughes, wrote personally to Banting to persuade him to include Elizabeth in his next set of trials. Dr. Banting accepted her as a private patient.
Elizabeth traveled to Toronto with her mother and her nurse in August 1922. She arrived in Toronto three days before her fifteenth birthday weighing only 45 pounds. She was examined by Dr. Banting who recorded that her “skin was scaling and hair brittle and falling out due to starvation”. She started insulin treatment immediately and responded positively. Coupled with insulin treatment, Banting prescribed her a high caloric diet that included lots of cream and butter. Her private nurse was appalled at the diet as it went against her nutrition training, however Banting assured her that the insulin would control Elizabeth’s blood sugar levels and it was important for her to return to a healthy weight. She reportedly gained 2 pounds a week and began to grow taller. Her mother returned home to Washington D.C. once Elizabeth’s treatment had stabilized. Elizabeth learned how to give herself insulin injections. When writing to her mother about this learning process, Elizabeth said, “I decided that being Captain of my own ship it would be very well for me to learn how to manage the target practice everyday.”
Numerous scientists traveled to Toronto to see Elizabeth and learn about the insulin from Dr. Banting himself. Dr. Allen was shocked by her progress. Elizabeth wrote that upon seeing her for the first time since starting insulin treatment Dr. Allen, “said with his mouth wide open- Oh – and that’s all he did”. Dr. Allen later wrote that, “insulin is performing miracles.” Dr. Joslin, another leading doctor in the field of diabetes, said about Elizabeth that “he never saw anybody with Diabetes look so well.”
Elizabeth’s case was the subject of international newspaper publicity. The public diligently followed her treatment process. Elizabeth wrote about the attention she was receiving: “Haven’t [the reporters] been horrible though? I hate being written up like that all over the country and I think its cheapening to the discovery.” Elizabeth was happy that her case was used to educate other doctors through medical journals and conferences, however she found the constant publicity in newspapers to be often false and tiresome. One newspaper article even misprinted that Elizabeth’s mother was the one receiving insulin treatment. Once she returned home to Washington D.C., less articles were written and Elizabeth was able to live a normal life.
Elizabeth Hughes lived to the age of 73, dying in 1981 of pneumonia. She lived for fifty-eight years on insulin.
If you want to learn more about Elizabeth Hughes, the University of Toronto has digitized many documents related to her diabetes treatment that are accessible to the public at this website.
This post was written by Rachel Delle Palme, Graduate Research Assistant at
Banting House NHSC. Rachel is currently completing her M.A. in Public History at