With my subscription to Ancestry, I have access to many official documents, like death certificates, that have so much more information than just dates. While researching Burdus Melcher for my last blog post, I decided to fill out his sister Emma’s profile in my records. Her death certificate is available on Ancestry and I found out she died in 1911 at the age of 59 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The cause of death? Diabetes Mellitus.
What was it like having diabetes in the 19th/early 20th century? How long did people with the condition usually live? The American Diabetes Association has a webpage about the history of diabetes, but it only starts in 1911 when insulin was discovered. The Diabetes Treatment History timeline at World History Project starts in 1552 BC when an Egyptian physician notated one of the major symptoms of diabetes.
On Google Books, I found a textbook titled Principles of diabetes mellitus. Late 18th Century surgeon general to the British Army John Rollo discovered that a strict high-protein low-carbohydrate diet could prolong life in diabetic patients. It was the only treatment available until insulin injections became available in 1923 and sometimes resulted in starvation for type 1 patients. Before insulin was available, type 1 patients usually lived very short lives.
Emma married Charles Whittemore in 1886 according to their 1900 census record. Charles’ Bowdoin College alumni obituary stated that he left Maine for Michigan in 1878 so Emma probably joined him in Michigan after they wed. They went on to have three children together. Since Emma lived to 59 and gave birth to three children, she most likely had type 2 diabetes, not type 1. I can only guess at what her day-to-day management of her health was like as I have not found any of her writings.
An interesting side note: Both Emma and Burdus attended college in Maine. Burdus graduated from Bowdoin College, as mentioned in my last post, while Emma was recorded as living on the Kents Hill School campus in the 1870 census. At that time they ran a women’s college.
Source: Poretsky, Leonid. 2010. Principles of diabetes mellitus. New York: Springer.