Experiences of early insulin user revealed in his archives

November 14 is World Diabetes Day, an awareness-raising campaign organised by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF). The RCP archives were very fortunate recently to receive the papers of prominent diabetes campaigner, Alan Nabarro (1914–1977), kindly donated to us by his children.

Alan Nabarro was one of the very first people in the UK to be prescribed insulin for diabetes in 1923, when he was nine years old. His personal papers are held in the RCP archives. They include a series of desperate telegrams sent by his father to doctors around the world, urgently requesting insulin for his son whose condition was worsening. Alan went onto become one of the longest living people with diabetes up to that time, and the Alan Nabarro Medal is still awarded by Diabetes UK to people who have lived with diabetes for 50 years. Alan spent his whole life working to improve the lives of people with diabetes around the world, and his unique story is told in his records.

Early life

Alan was born in Cricklewood in 1914, and lived in north London his whole life. In 1921, when he was seven, Alan was diagnosed with diabetes. At that time there was no effective treatment for the condition, and diabetic children often did not live longer than a year after diagnosis. As Alan and his family struggled to come to terms with his condition, news broke of revolutionary work being carried out by doctors in Canada.

Frederick Banting (1891–1941) and Charles Best (1899-1978) worked at the University of Toronto, and in 1922, together with colleagues in Santa Barbara, California, they first used the hormone insulin to successfully treat a diabetic patient. When he heard the news, Alan’s father, Joseph, telegrammed Toronto and Santa Barbara requesting insulin for his son, who had become very ill. Frustratingly, Joseph was told that the hormone was not yet ready for distribution. He then turned to a Dr Devos, a diabetes specialist in Brussels. Dr Devos flew to London to see Alan and another diabetic boy, Neville Janion. Alan’s parents and Neville’s parents supported each other in the early days of their sons’ diagnoses. Dr Devos put Alan on a near-starvation diet, until finally in 1923 he was able to get regular insulin supplies.

Telegram from Joseph Nabarro requesting insulin for his son, Alan. 1922.
Telegram from Joseph Nabarro requesting insulin for his son, Alan. 1922

From the time of his diagnosis, Alan took an active interest in his condition. Among his papers are several diet sheets that he produced as a child, detailing what he could eat in what quantities each day, including a special Bar Mitzvah diet sheet. Alan wrote regularly to his consultant, Dr Harrison, with many questions about living with his condition. One of Alan’s letters tells of a frightening incident when he was 11 and was verbally abused by a man while injecting himself with insulin in a restaurant toilet.

Adult years

Alan and Dr Harrison remained friends well into Alan’s adulthood. When he was 21, Alan joined the British Diabetic Association (now Diabetes UK), and spent the rest of his life promoting awareness of diabetes around the world. When Alan met and fell in love with Vera Kadish, Alan’s mother wrote to three specialists asking whether there was any reason why his condition should prevent him from marrying. The doctors all replied in the negative; Alan and Vera were married in 1944, and went on to have two children.

Bar mitzvah diet sheet. Alan Nabarro, c1926.
Bar mitzvah diet sheet. Alan Nabarro, c1926.

Alan and Neville had lost contact with each other over the years, but ran into each other at the first IDF conference in South Africa in 1952. They kept in touch, and when Alan was awarded the Joslin Medal in 1972 for living with diabetes for 50 years, he wrote to the Joslin Foundation recommending Neville for an award also.

Alan’s papers, which include correspondence with Charles Best and UK diabetes specialist, Robin D Lawrence, can be viewed by appointment in the RCP library reading room.

Felix Lancashire, assistant archivist

Felix Lancashire ,
Assistant archivist

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