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The history of insulin: the mystery of diabetes

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Drawing inspiration from our forebears in scientific inquiry to face emerging global challenges

Adisease as ancient, prevalent and serious as diabetes attracts mythology, and the edges of its history blur. The ancient Greek word diabetes, originally deriving from the verb diabainein, “to pass through”, was the name for a “siphon”, referring to the associated polyuria. Aretaeus of Cappadocia (around the first century CE) was probably an early adopter of the word although another source suggests it was first used by Apollonius of Memphis around 250 BCE. Mellitus, meaning “honey-sweet”, was added by the British physician Thomas Willis in 1675 “after rediscovering the sweetness of urine and blood of patients (first noticed by the ancient Indians)”.1 However, it was not until 1776 that another British physician, Matthew Dobson, identified excess sugar in urine and blood as the cause of their sweetness.1

In 1889, Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski (variously described as physicians or physiologists, depending…