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Ancient History of Diabetes Mellitus 

12 interesting facts which we should all remember about  'Honey or Sugar Urine'

Dr Sampurna Roy MD   



 Pancreas                               Honey or Sugar Urine


1) The word "diabetes", meaning a 'siphon' or 'running through',was used by Aretaeus of Cappodocia (81-133 AD). in the second century AD  to describe the polyuria.

He also noted that thirst and emaciation as features of this fatal disease.


2) Galen (129-200 AD) described it as a disease specific to the kidneys because of a weakness in their retentive faculties.

The great loss of urine led Galen to name the disease diarrhea of the urine (diarrhea urinosa).

He mentioned the rarity of the disease, stating: "For my own part, I have seen the disease till now only twice; the patients suffered from an inextinguishable thirst which forced them to drink enormous quantities".

This excessive thirst inspired the term dipsakon (ardent thirst).

3) Susruta in India is said to have referred to diabetes mellitus as ‘honey urine’ in the fifth century AD.


4) The sweet taste of diabetic urine was also noted by Avicenna (980-1037) and Morgagni (1635-1683), was attributed to the passage of absorbed water and nutrients unchanged into the urine.

5) Willis, in 1679, wrote ‘those labouring with this disease piss with a great deal more than they drink’ and went on to say that the urine ‘is wonderfully sweet as if it were imbued with Honey or Sugar.

6) Matthew Dobson (1732-1784) showed that the urine sweetness was because of sugar and was preceded and accompanied by sugar in the blood. 

7)  In 1815 the famous French chemist Chevreul (who died at the age of 103) discovered that the sugar in diabetic urine was glucose.

8) By the nineteenth century 'diabetes insipidus' (polyuria with tasteless urine), now ascribed to deficient secretion of antidiuretic hormone from the neurohypophysis was distinguished from diabetes mellitus in which there was in Willis' words "a running through of sweet urine".

9) In the 1850s Claude Bernard described the "internal secretion" of glucose into the blood, from its storage form "glycogen" in the liver. 

10) In 1889 Minkowski and von Mering showed that complete pancreatectomy in dogs produced a condition corresponding to severe diabetes mellitus in man characterized by polyuria, thirst, emaciation, hunger, glycosuria, hyperglycaemia, and ketonuria, leading to coma and death.

11) In Japan, diabetes mellitus was called 'Shoukachi', thirst disease, before the 18th century. There remains a record of a lecture by Prof. Aoyama on diabetes mellitus delivered in 1906, in which the restriction of carbohydrate intake and a meat-rich diet was recommended. 

12)  After many investigators had attempted to extract an active principle from the pancreas Banting and Best finally succeeded in 1921 in preparing insulin in a form which was effective in overcoming experimental diabetes in pancreatectomized dogs and was also active and highly successful in the treatment of patients with severe diabetes mellitus.

This was, and still is, the most outstanding advance in our understanding and control of diabetes mellitus.

However, knowledge of hormonal interactions have shown that this disease is not due solely to insulin deficiency but also to the actions of hormones, such as glucagons and Growth hormone, which are in many ways antagonistic to insulin.                   

Visit:  Pancreatic Pathology Online


Further reading:

On the term diabetes in the works of Aretaeus and Galen.

Diabetes mellitus in the texts of old Hindu medicine (Charaka, Susruta, Vagbhata).

A contemporary scientific support on role of ancient ayurvedic diet and concepts in diabetes mellitus (madhumeha).

Aretaeus of Cappadocia and the first description of diabetes.

History of diabetes: from ants to analogs.

'Diabetes' as described by Byzantine writers from the fourth to the ninth century AD: the Graeco-Roman influence.

A history of diabetes mellitus or how a disease of the kidneys evolved into a kidney disease.

The cultural history of the discovery of insulin.


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Dr  Sampurna Roy  MD

Consultant Histopathologist (Kolkata - India)







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