Today is World Diabetes Day. Not so long ago, diabetes was often thought of as a “Jewish disease.” This was before doctors and scientists understood genetics. The idea of diabetes as a “Jewish disease” also pre-dated the knowledge of the physical processes involved in the disease and was based on reports that there was a particularly high percentage of diabetics who were Jewish.

Research in diabetes has come a long way, but there is still much to learn before a cure is found for the illness. Each year, the European Association for the Study of Diabetes awards a young researcher with the Minkowski Prize. This award is named in honor of a Lithuanian Jew, Oskar Minkowski (1858-1931), who made the discovery of the connection of diabetes to the pancreas. (It is interesting to note that the pancreas, an organ that was largely unknown or ignored in the ancient world, is mentioned in the Talmud as the “finger of the liver” on page 31a of Tractate Tamid.)

Many diabetics are treated with an injection of insulin, a hormone that is produced by the pancreas. One of the researchers credited with discovering the relation of islet cells in the pancreas to diabetes (leading to the discovery of insulin treatment) was Dr. Moses Barron (1882–1974). Born into a traditional family in Kovno, Lithuania, Dr. Barron arrived in the United States when he was five and spent most of his life doing research in Minnesota.

A better understanding of how the insulin injections worked was researched by Rachmiel Levine, a native of Zalszczyki, Poland. Orphaned from his mother at a young age, Levine emigrated to Canada at age 16 after his father was murdered in a pogrom. His 1949 discovery of the role of insulin in glucose metabolism gained him the title, “Father of Modern Diabetes Research.”

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