Diabetes has been diagnosed for thousands of years but effective treatment wasn’t available until the early 20th century. To help explain what earlier physicians saw and thought, it’s helpful to know how the disease operates.
Diabetes disables the body’s ability to metabolize sugar. Excess sugar builds up in the bloodstream, causing the body to try to eliminate it through excessive urination. The medical term is diabetes mellitus, diabetes meaning “excessive urination” and mellitus meaning “honeysweet.” It refers to the sweetness of urine containing excessive amounts of sugar expelled by the body.
The ancients recognized there were two types. The first affected younger people who died from it quickly. This would eventually be called “Juvenile Diabetes” but it’s also been found to strike adults and is now typically referred to as “Type 1.” The second was associated with older people who could live for years while enduring debilitating complications. It came to be called “Adult Onset Diabetes” but it now affects young people as well. The disease is now referred to as “Type 2.” Both types were always fatal.
The ancient Egyptians noted the frequent urination problem, while their Hindu contemporaries wrote of ants being attracted to the urine of people suffering emaciation. The Greeks thought the disease melted flesh and expelled it. In what has to be one of the worst medical jobs ever, diabetes was diagnosed by “water tasters” who sampled the urine of those suspected of having the disease to detect sweetness.