If you’re a person with Type 1 diabetes, or have a loved one with it — you’ve certainly witnessed advancements in care as well as improved advocacy for the disease over the years. Things seem to be looking up, (and I’m not talking about our A1Cs)! It wasn’t always this way though. In fact, it took thousands of years from its first mention in history for the development of insulin, which permitted basic management of the disease. Here is a look at the secret history of diabetes and how we got to where we are today. You may be surprised by the T1D journey on this bumpy road.
Life before Insulin
1550 BC: Earliest Mention
- The earliest traceable mention of diabetes in history came from an ancient Egyptian papyrus, speaking of a disease that causes rapid weight loss and frequent urination. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, no remedy is mentioned.
1000s AD: Diagnosis
- Early physicians used the “uroscopy” method by examining the urine to diagnose diabetes mellitus (mellitus meaning “honey” in Latin). One tactic was to taste the urine to determine if there was sweetness.
1915: The Starvation Diet
- Shortly before the discovery of insulin, diabetes specialists would often promote an extremely low-calorie diet, and prolonged fasting to minimize symptoms. The downside of this remedy was — not surprisingly — starvation.
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- The first experimental tests with extracts of the pancreas were performed on diabetic dogs – successfully lowering their blood sugar. These experiments were the basis for other work that lead to the first successful treatment in a human with Type 1 in 1922.
- Today, trained service dogs continue to be our furry allies as Diabetic Alert Dogs, aka “DADs!” These pups are taught to recognize a low blood sugar or a high blood sugar and alert its owner before it becomes an emergency.
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- Insulin became the very first human protein to be chemically synthesized. Before then, only animal insulin was used and distributed.
The Evolution of Meters
Testing our blood glucose levels is integral to our diabetes management, and has become second nature to most of us in our daily routines. However, owning a blood sugar meter is a relatively new luxury for Type 1 diabetics.
Before the meter, there were test strips (similar to Ketostix) that required a substantial amount of blood onto the tip, and would then turn a color that corresponded to a range of possible blood sugars, (very low, low, normal, high, very high…)
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- BG meters became available to hospitals and physicians.
- The first personal-use blood glucose meter (Bayer’s Glucometer) is released and available for diabetics to test their blood sugar on their own instead of only at the hospital.
- Did you know?: The first blood glucose meter weighed just under three pounds!
- Dexcom releases the first Continuous Glucose Monitoring system (CGM) to track our blood sugar levels with even more precision.
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There are few things more frustrating than when a film or television show gets T1D completely wrong as it perpetuates ignorance and misinformation surrounding the disease. However, as T1D advocacy improves through social media, the awareness of the disease in the entertainment industry seems to grow with it.
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- In the film Steel Magnolias, Julia Roberts’ character, Shelby, has Type one. In the iconic “Drink your juice, Shelby” scene – Shelby clearly suffers from extreme hypoglycemia. Sally Field’s character even mentions the fact that she just has “a little too much insulin in her.” The film accurately reflects what it was like not to have some of the tools that are available today.
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- Kristen Stewart portrays a young girl with Type one in Panic Room. Her hypoglycemia getting progressively worse throughout the film keeps the audience on the edge of their seat, and she ultimately ends up getting a shot of emergency glucagon. One interesting part of the narrative is that she wears what appears to be a CGM watch on her wrist. This “GlucoWatch” by Animas was short lived, not incredibly accurate, and it was difficult to get. However, we might conclude that Panic Room was ahead of its time. If the film had been made today — KStew’s character would have definitely been wearing an Apple Watch with her Dexcom app!
- It is rare that a film or television show will use a Type one diabetic character unless their disease adds to the suspense of the plot. But sometimes Hollywood surprises — the show Brothers & Sisters showcased a young girl being diagnosed and living confidently with T1D throughout five seasons, with accurate references to her daily management.
- An episode of The Blacklist utilized T1D technology onscreen on a whole new level. After a girl is abducted, the government is able to track her whereabouts using her Medtronic insulin pump’s Bluetooth capabilities as a GPS. Sure, it was a little far fetched, but creative, nonetheless!
T1D Advocacy & Publicity
It’s taken awhile for strong T1D voices to unite and speak out against the ignorance surrounding Type 1 , but the invention of the internet and sequential social media platforms has accelerated this movement. Until recently, the Type 1 community didn’t have many role models in the public eye.
- Mary Tyler Moore becomes a voice for Type 1 diabetes, eventually becoming the International Chairman for JDRF.
- Judge Sonia Sotomayor comes forward about having Type 1, despite others wondering if diabetes would make her unfit to serve as Supreme Court Justice. This same year, she is appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by Barack Obama.
Social Media Revolution
Elliott Yamin, Crystal Bowersox, Sam Fuld, Jake Byrne and Victor Garber are just a few examples of Type 1 advocates in the spotlight who have been raising their voices in the last few years.
The recent Social Media boom has given Type 1 diabetics a space to create, connect, inspire and advocate freely – with platforms not unlike Beyond Type 1, pioneered by chef Sam Talbot and singer Nick Jonas. Type 1 awareness and philanthropy is greater than its ever been, making it very difficult for any diabadass to feel alone.
There is hope on the horizon when it comes to finding a cure — in the form of clinical stem cell trials and islet transplantation. Some of these trials have reached phase II, testing on humans who have had Type 1 for several years.
It seems only a matter of time (and hopefully not too much time,) before these dedicated doctors and researchers will be able to turn Type 1 into a thing of the past!
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Read The 10 Most Expensive Liquids in the World by Alexi Melvin.
Alexi Melvin is a freelance journalist and screenwriter based in the Bay Area. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2003, and has been passionate about raising awareness ever since. Her other passions include film, animals and spiritual healing.