100 years since the first diabetes patient treated with insulin in England

It has been 100 years since the first person in England was treated with insulin, changing the course of diabetes treatment in the country.

The milestone in medicine took place at the University of Sheffield’s Medical School in 1923, on a patient called Sir Stuart Goodwin, who was in the Sheffield steel industry and philanthropist.

At that time, a diabetes diagnosis was essentially a “death sentence”, with life expectancy at one to two years at most.

The only treatments for diabetes time were starvation diets, such as the Allen diet which restricted a patient’s intake to as little as 400 calories in 24 hours.

But Sir Stuart paid to be included in a clinical trial for insulin, and after six months was back at work and unrecognisable to colleagues.

While being treated, he also showed goodwill to others and paid for a number of other patients to be treated.

Professor Sheila Francis, from the University of Sheffield’s School of Medicine and Population Health, told the PA news agency: “Now we talk about complications and effects on the eyes and effects on the feet.

“But none of those things really happened because people didn’t live long enough.

“So really, it was a death sentence.

“Basically, it was a death sentence because it was just managed using starvation diets up until the point that that insulin was used, so people didn’t live very long at all.”

She added: “There’s a strong thread of goodwill throughout the story, in that Goodwin was accepted onto the clinical trial.

“So goodwill was shown to Goodwin and then he showed goodwill to the people of Sheffield by funding their treatment.

“And then he followed on with major philanthropic donations within the city and within the UK.

Prof Francis added that Sir Stuart, born in 1886, was probably diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was in his 30s, but thanks to the insulin treatment went on to live until he was 83.

She explained that recent archive searches revealed the treatment most likely started in February.

The insulin used in the trial in 1923 was made in Sheffield using pancreatic tissue from cows.

Before insulin was discovered, type 1 diabetes was a death sentence – people didn’t live for more than one or two years

Diabetes UK spokesman

One year earlier, a young boy was treated in Toronto, Canada, but the discovery was made in 1921.

The first UK person was treated in Edinburgh in August 1922.

According to Diabetes UK, today more than one million people in the UK rely on insulin.

Hannah Postles, 38, from Sheffield was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes aged 26.

She said: “I was diagnosed with type one diabetes in December 2011 and, since then, have needed to inject myself with insulin up to five times every day to stay alive.

“Diabetes care has progressed so much since those first clinical trials in Sheffield 100 years ago, and even in the 12 years since I was diagnosed.

“I used to have to prick my finger to test my blood glucose, but I now wear a sensor on my arm that automatically sends my readings to my phone.

“I will soon be moving to an insulin pump instead of giving myself insulin injections, and my pump and sensor will communicate with each other to help keep my blood glucose levels in a healthy range.

“It is remarkable to think that, while type one diabetes was a death sentence for patients before the discovery and first clinical trials of insulin, we are at a point 100 years later where more and more patients are able to access technology that essentially gives them an ‘artificial pancreas’.

“These improvements make a real difference to people’s lives, reducing the burden of living with a condition that can be so difficult and exhausting to manage.

“As someone who receives their diabetes care in Sheffield, I feel really proud that the city and university played such a critical role in the first British clinical trials of insulin, and am grateful to everyone involved in the research that has taken place since then.”

However, Prof Francis said more needs to be done across the world to ensure equal access to the life saving treatment.

She explained: “I think we’re always striving to get equal access across the world for these different medicines, and pharmaceutical companies should be making arrangements to make insulin available across the world at a reasonable price, it’s one of the most successful drugs of all time.”

A Diabetes UK spokesman said: “Before insulin was discovered, type 1 diabetes was a death sentence, people didn’t live for more than one or two years.

“The discovery of insulin was revolutionary and it has saved millions of lives worldwide, turning a fatal condition into something that can be managed.

“In the years since this breakthrough, we’ve learnt an incredible amount about the immune system’s role in type 1 diabetes and the potential consequences the condition has on people’s health and wellbeing.

“Diabetes UK is committed to funding research that will lead to new treatments and eventually a cure for people with type 1 diabetes, where insulin as the only therapy for the condition is a thing of the past.”


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