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Elizabeth Evans Hughes: Reluctant Diabetes Pioneer

One of the first people to receive insulin for diabetes

Laura KolodjeskiLaura Kolodjeski

Many of us likely know what life is like on a diet; I would imagine nearly all of us have tried one at some point or another. But imagine yourself on a diet that restricted you to 800 calories a day or less. Continue to imagine that one day a week you were restricted to a meager 250 calories. Finally, imagine having to endure such a diet as an 11 year old. Sounds nearly impossible, right? For Elizabeth Evans Hughes, that was life for three years, setting her on a path to become a diabetes pioneer.

Elizabeth was born to one of the most politically powerful families in the first half of the 20th century. Her father, Charles Evans Hughes, was governor of New Jersey, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Secretary of State and one-time candidate for president.

Elizabeth Evans Hughes

In 1919, at age 11, Elizabeth was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes which was considered to be a near death sentence at that time given insulin did not yet exist and many people passed on within months of diagnosis. But Elizabeth was part of a wealthy and powerful family and able to meet Dr. Frederick Allen, one of the innovators of the starvation method for living longer with diabetes. Allen’s research had led him to determine that eating very few calories could slow down the progression of the disease. However, those on the diet often wasted away and became susceptible to infections due to their weakened state.

The Hughes family was eager for Elizabeth to try the new diet as it had shown promise in Allen’s research. In keeping Elizabeth alive, as a Lancet article details, the starvation method worked; however, it also caused her to become extremely thin and weak. Over a three-year period, from 1919 to 1922, Elizabeth’s 5-foot tall frame became a gaunt 45 pounds. To no surprise, she was often too weak to attend school or participate in any physical activity.

According to diaTribe, in 1922 Elizabeth’s mother, Antoinette, read a news article about an experimental treatment being used for diabetes. The article featured Frederick Banting, who discovered and helped to develop insulin therapy. Antoinette wrote Banting a letter asking if he might be able to help Elizabeth. Since Banting and his associates were having trouble producing insulin after giving it to the first human in January of 1922, he wrote back to Antoinette saying he couldn’t help her. Unsatisfied with this answer, Antoinette convinced her husband to use his power as Secretary of State to persuade Banting to reconsider. Charles’ appeals worked and Elizabeth was sent to the University of Toronto to receive treatments.

While in Toronto, Elizabeth lived in an apartment with a nurse and received twice-daily insulin injections. Much to Banting’s delight, Elizabeth responded well to the injections. She was slowly able to eat additional foods, participate in more activities and even began to gain weight. Banting was so pleased that he invited other doctors and scientists to see Elizabeth’s progress; and the “cure” was reported in newspapers in both Canada and the U.S. However, Elizabeth was less than thrilled to be at the center of all the media attention.

At the end of 1922, Elizabeth went back to Washington and continued her insulin injections for the rest of the life. Her reluctance to be in the public eye only became stronger as she got older, despite her family’s high profile status. She went on to graduate from Barnard College in 1929, marry in 1930, and give birth to three children.

From that point on, most people were not even aware that Elizabeth had diabetes. Her husband was not informed until after they were engaged and her children did not know until later in their lives. They said their mother would disappear for a few minutes around 5:30 p.m. each day and never said why.

Elizabeth did give an interview about her role in the development of insulin in 1980, but under an assumed name. On April 25, 1981 she passed away having received more than 43,000 insulin injections during her lifetime.

Researching Elizabeth’s story was an awe-inspiring experience and I am continually amazed at how far diabetes advancements have come. I think Elizabeth is a great example of what Women’s History Month is all about. To learn more about Elizabeth and her contribution to diabetes history, you can check out the book on her life called Breakthrough.

All the best,

Laura K.


Photo Credit:
Courtesy Library of Congress.

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