Giving hope to patients with diabetes for 90 years

Friday 24 July 2015

Giving hope to patients with diabetes for 90 years

On 24 July 1925 at Guy’s Hospital, six-year-old Patricia Cheeseman became the first patient in the UK to be successfully treated for diabetes using insulin.

Insulin treatment, which was pioneered by the Canadian physician Frederick Banting, marked a massive medical breakthrough and revolutionised healthcare for patients with diabetes.

Dr Luigi Gnudi, diabetes consultant at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, says: “Insulin treatment gave hope to patients with diabetes where previously there was very little that could be done for them.  

“In the 90 years since that initial success at Guy’s in 1925, the use of insulin has transformed the treatment provided to our patients and helped them to enjoy long and healthy lives.”

Today there are 3.3 million people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK and it is estimated that around 400,000 of them use insulin regularly. 

Diabetes is a long-term condition that causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high because their body cannot use it properly.

Before the development of insulin treatment, people with diabetes faced immense suffering and vastly reduced life expectancies. Most would only live one or two years after developing the condition.

Although diabetes has been recognised as a medical condition for many centuries, it was not well understood and there was a lack of effective treatment.

In the 11th century Greek doctors recommended horseback riding to reduce the excess urination associated with diabetes. Patients in the 19th century were thought to benefit from bleeding, blistering, and doping. At the onset of the 20th century leading physicians were still advocating treatments such as starvation diets or the use of opium.

When it was established that injecting insulin would drop the patient’s blood sugar levels to near normal, a diagnosis of diabetes gradually changed from being a death sentence to becoming a condition that could be successfully managed.

Guy’s Hospital was involved in another key insulin development in the 1970s when a research team invented the insulin pump. These small battery-operated devices are attached to the patient’s body and deliver insulin via a catheter placed under the skin.

Carole Bartholomew, 72, has diabetes and has used insulin daily for almost her entire life. Having first received an insulin injection in 1953, Carlole has seen significant improvements in the treatments available.   

Carole says: “At first I used glass syringes with needles over an inch long. Nowadays I inject insulin with an insulin pen where the needle is only a few millimetres long.

“Insulin is now part of my daily routine and I hardly think about it anymore. Without a doubt, insulin has helped me to live a long and relatively healthy life.”

Find out more about the diabetes and endocrinology service.

Last updated: March 2022

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