History and ancient discovery of Diabetes Mellitus


Diabetes was one of the first diseases described, with an Egyptian manuscript from c. 1500 BCE mentioning “too great emptying of the urine”. The Ebers papyrus includes a recommendation for a drink to be taken in such cases The first described cases are believed to be of type 1 diabetes. Indian physicians around the same time identified the disease and classified it as madhumeha or “honey urine”, noting the urine would attract ants.

The term “diabetes” or “to pass through” was first used in 230 BCE by the Greek Apollonius of Memphis. The disease was considered rare during the time of the Roman empire, with Galen commenting he had only seen two cases during his career. This is possibly due to the diet and lifestyle of the ancients, or because the clinical symptoms were observed during the advanced stage of the disease. Galen named the disease “diarrhea of the urine” (diarrhea urinosa).

 

The earliest surviving work with a detailed reference to diabetes is that of Aretaeus of Cappadocia (2nd or early 3rd century CE). He described the symptoms and the course of the disease, which he attributed to the moisture and coldness, reflecting the beliefs of the “Pneumatic School”. He hypothesized a correlation of diabetes with other diseases, and he discussed differential diagnosis from the snakebite which also provokes excessive thirst. His work remained unknown in the West until 1552, when the first Latin edition was published in Venice.

 

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes were identified as separate conditions for the first time by the Indian physicians Sushruta and Charaka in 400–500 CE with type 1 associated with youth and type 2 with being overweight. The term “mellitus” or “from honey” was added by the Briton John Rolle in the late 1700s to separate the condition from diabetes insipidus, which is also associated with frequent urination.  Effective treatment was not developed until the early part of the 20th century, when Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Herbert Best isolated and purified insulin in 1921 and 1922.  This was followed by the development of the long-acting insulin NPH in the 1940s.

Etymology

The word diabetes  comes from Latin diabētēs, which in turn comes from Ancient Greek διαβήτης (diabētēs), which literally means “a passer through; a siphon”. Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia (fl. 1st century CE) used that word, with the intended meaning “excessive discharge of urine”, as the name for the disease.

The word mellitus  comes from the classical Latin word mellītus, meaning “mellite” (i.e. sweetened with honey honey-sweet. The Latin word comes from mell-, which comes from mel, meaning “honey” sweetness.    This sweet taste had been noticed in urine by the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians, Indians, and Persians.

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