A Fascinating Story of Diabetes: Elizabeth Gossett Hughes

We often tend to think of insulin as life-saving for those with T1D, but it is for those with T2D as well.  And some of the stories behind its discovery are fascinating.

The story of Elizabeth Gossett and diabetes

Take, for example, Elizabeth Gossett. In 1919 she developed diabetes, a year before insulin was discovered. Back then, the only option they had for treatment was a very restrictive diet, commonly called the “starvation diet.” In short, people literally starved to death in an effort to extend life. A diagnosis of diabetes (T1D) in those times usually meant you had about a year to live. In Elizabeth’s case, her life extended past that mark by about two years.

Insulin discovery

In 1920, a year after her diagnosis, insulin was discovered in Canada by Dr. Banting and his team. Yet, it would not be until 1922 that the first insulin injection took place. The conditions for insulin dosing weren’t ideal.  Insulin was “dirty.” Pulled from the pancreases of different animals (typically calves), there was no way to clean it well. Needles were long and painful and left welts.

Her only lifeline

That same year, Elizabeth was on death’s door, weighing only 50 pounds at the age of 14. Her mother pleaded to her father, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, to pull strings and get Elizabeth to a miraculous “cure” that had been discovered in Canada. Insulin. He refused at first, feeling it was unethical on a number of different levels. Eventually, however, he followed his wife’s lead and advocated for his daughter. Elizabeth was off to Canada for a life-saving “cure.”

Despite the poor state of insulin at that time, Elizabeth received what her body needed. She began to improve in her health, gained weight, ate a wider variety and amount of foods, and felt well enough to be active and go on outings.

One of the first to survive due to insulin

She became somewhat of a sensation, with scientists and media alike swarming her while she was under her Canadian physician’s care. Many stories about Elizabeth describe how MUCH she hated the attention. So much so, she destroyed documents and photos of herself showing her connection to a diabetes diagnosis. It’s reported her children had no idea she had diabetes until later years (into adulthood). Yes, I said children.

She went on to live a full life

Despite being on death’s door at one time, Elizabeth Hughes eventually went on to graduate college, marry (to a Mr. Gossett), and bear three healthy children. Having children may not sound like a big deal. But not so many years ago, women with diabetes were warned against having children. The fact Elizabeth was able to have healthy children is amazing. Especially, considering there was no way to measure glucose levels at home until the 1940s (and even then it was checking glucose in the urine).

Life made possible by insulin

Elizabeth Hughes Gossett lived well past the expected lifespan of someone with T1D, and passed away at the age of 73 years old in 1981. But her story inspires us to remember that insulin is powerful and life-saving, regardless of the type of diabetes. Too often insulin is presented as a threat to be used if someone with T2D doesn’t “shape up.” If this happens to you, ignore it and remember this story. The story of a mother’s determination, a child’s last hope, and a fulfilled, beautiful life made possible by insulin.

Read more about Elizabeth’s story in the book: “Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle” by Thea Cooper & Arthur Ainsburg.

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