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Diabetes is by no means a modern disease. Descriptions of the symptoms of diabetes have been found Egyptian papyrus scrolls from as far back as 1500 BCE, and the term itself was coined in the 3rd century BCE by Apollonius of Memphis, a Greek physician.

Though the concept of diabetes has been recognized for thousands of years, successful treatments and a true understanding of the ailment did not really begin to catch on until the late 18th century. However, once scientists and physicians began studying diabetes in earnest, progress has been made in the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes by leaps and bounds up into the modern era.

Advanced Detection

Medical practice in the 18th century was a bit of a mixed bag with many physicians subscribing to different schools of thought when it came to what caused issues in human health. Doctors did not sterilize their hands or instruments, many physicians still believed that illness came from an imbalance of the bodily “humors”, and the practice of using leeches to rid the body of bad blood was still common. Suffice it to say that medicine in the 18th century was not exactly grounded in true science.


While in the modern era doctors have simple blood tests at their disposal that can determine whether or not a patient has diabetes, things weren’t quite so easy in the 18th century. In fact, one of the main methods that physicians used to figure out whether or not someone was afflicted with diabetes was to drink their urine, as diabetic urine is incredibly sweet due to their bodies attempting to get rid of extra blood glucose through their urine. One of the first major breakthroughs for diabetes testing came about just after the end of the 18th century with Karl Trommer developing a test that allowed for the detection of glucose within urine without having to physically taste it.


Thanks to modern medicine, the consumption of diabetic urine has now been relegated to purely recreational. However, even with modern blood tests that make the diagnosis of diabetes a quick, easy process, there is still a large issue regarding undiagnosed diabetes. While more than 30 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with either type I or type II diabetes, there are still an estimated 7.2 million people that are currently living with undiagnosed diabetes. Those with diagnosed diabetes can easily manage it with the help of a diabetes management nurse, so people who are unaware that they are living with diabetes are living in unnecessary risk.

Better Access To Care

Though the 18th century saw its fair share of advances when it came to healthcare, illnesses like diabetes weren’t well enough understood to be properly treated. In an era dominated by deadly infectious diseases like the bubonic plague, those suffering from diabetes had it relatively easy in comparison. While insulin wouldn’t be discovered until decades later, there were some basic treatments that did exist for diabetes in the 18th century, though their efficacy wasn’t exactly exemplary.


Many early treatments revolved around dietary restrictions that were thought to decrease the excessive urination that accompanies diabetes. Green vegetables and a carbohydrate-free diet were some of the less extreme diets, though there were many physicians that suggested a diet of rancid animal food, tobacco, and supposedly “non-irritating” diets consisting of milk with rice or other starchy, gummy foods. On the non-dietary side, doctors would also suggest exercise and stress avoidance along with some less effective methods like wearing flannel or silk close to the skin and taking cold baths.


Today we know much more about what treatments for diabetes are actually effective. Regular insulin injections are necessary for those with type I diabetes because their pancreas is unable to produce insulin properly. Those with type II diabetes actually have insulin resistance, so injections are required far less often. Additionally, type II diabetes is preventable with an appropriate diet and other lifestyle changes. Preventative healthcare isn’t just successful in preventing type II diabetes, but can also help to prevent heart disease and many different types of cancer.

Increased Understanding

The severe lack of appropriate medical education in the 18th century might have been one of the reasons it took thousands of years to go from recognizing the symptoms of diabetes to actually being able to effectively treat it. In the UK, the only place at the beginning of the 18th century to obtain a medical education was in London, and in the U.S. the only institutions that offered a medical education were the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Dartmouth College, and King’s College (now Columbia University).


However, after medical education accessibility became more common, our understanding of diabetes and how to treat it increased. Where initially animal insulin was used to treat diabetes, now human insulin produced by certain microorganisms is used. Additionally, the development of both fast-acting and long-lasting insulin in a variety of delivery methods have allowed those living with diabetes to live a much more comfortable, manageable life.


Beyond advances in treatment methods, modern science has also provided insights into the lesser known effects of both type I and type II diabetes. While we have known for decades that diabetes can have serious health impacts on someone’s heart, eyes, and kidneys, lesser-known side effects like the development of erectile dysfunction can also occur. Diabetes causes erectile dysfunction by damaging blood vessels and causing lowered testosterone levels, both of which can lead to ED.


The world of healthcare has come a long way in understanding and treating diabetes since the 18th century. Modern advances in insulin therapy and delivery methods have made diabetes into an illness that can be managed with relative ease, whereas in the 18th-century physicians were essentially taking shots in the dark as to how to treat diabetes. While diabetes is still a major issue in the modern world, humanity has made it into a much less lethal and uncomfortable experience for those afflicted with diabetes.