Frederick Banting came up with the idea which led to the discovery of insulin right here at Banting House in 1920. Although the idea of insulin was new, the effects of diabetes were not – for many thousands of years, people had been suffering and dying from the disease. So how did doctors help them before insulin had been discovered?
Diabetes was first described in Ancient Egypt around 3500 BCE. Ever since then, physicians around the world tried to test and treat the “sugar sickness”, as it was called; however, with insulin still unknown, diabetics were doomed to waste away. Doctors in Egypt, India, and Greece all watched as the patients they desperately tried to save inevitably fell into comas and died.
During the 18th century, doctors began to understand that diet played a role in diabetes, and that with modification of the diet, its effects could be slowed. They aimed to limit carbohydrates, and increase fat and protein levels in the food that diabetics ate. Fad diets for the desperate in this time included the “oat cure”, “potato therapy”, the “rice cure”, and opium – few of which did anything to help.
Just before Banting discovered insulin, a new and somewhat effective treatment was being promoted by Dr. Frederick Allen and Dr. Elliot Joslin, the world’s leading diabetologists. The Allen Diet was an individualized starvation diet which limited carbs along with calories for people with diabetes. For some people, the diet consisted of only 400 calories a day – barely anything! It was difficult for patients to follow, especially children, who often did not understand the importance of their diet restrictions. One boy was so desperate for food that he ate his pet canary’s birdseed, causing him to fall into a coma and die. While the diet allowed some patients to live long enough to see the discovery of insulin, most were not so lucky and some even starved to death.
After Frederick Banting discovered insulin, the lives of diabetics everywhere changed forever – they were no longer forced to live on a starvation diet, waiting for their death. Instead, they were given the opportunity to live a full and happy life, which included eating whatever they wanted. Banting supported people with diabetes being able to eat normally – he thought they deserved to live life to the fullest. However, many doctors trained in the “pre-insulin school of thought”, as he called it, continued to place diabetics on a bland diet lacking in taste, flavor and options.
Today, diabetic diets are still a contentious issue – generally, they focus on a balanced diet which is low in saturated fats and processed sugars, and high in soluble fiber. The main concern when discussing diabetic diet is not death, but rather kidney failure and macrovascular disease.
Thanks to the discovery of insulin, it is easy to take for granted the effective treatment of diabetes. Yet not even a hundred years ago, the treatments for diabetes were unthinkable to us today. It is a lasting testament to the great discovery of Sir Frederick Banting, and a reminder that we are lucky for the treatment available today.
This post was written by Kylie Smith. Kylie recently graduated with a B.A. in history and anthropology from The University of Western Ontario, and will be attending teachers college in the fall.