Breakthrough: Diabetes History and the Experience of a Child

Louise Mirrer, president of the New-York Historical Society, wrote a wonderful blog on the Huffington Post on November 5. She notes that the “experience of children can teach us volumes about our history.” One such child is Elizabeth Hughes, who, after being diagnosed with diabetes, became one of the first recipients of the newly-discovered insulin. Her story, chronicled in BREAKTHROUGH, is inspiring and eye-opening. 

Louise Mirrer writes: 

 The story of young Elizabeth Evans Hughes led us to think differently, as an institution organized around history, about the fight for life waged by medical patients almost a century ago and about the roles of science…” 

You can read the full post below or at the Huffington Post.  Also, be sure to check out the exhibit at the New-York Historical Society (also called Breakthrough) based on the book BREAKTHROUGH. 

Louise MirrerLouise Mirrer

New-York Historical Society president 

Posted: November 5, 2010 09:41 AM 

How the Past Changes

When It’s Seen

Through a Child’s Eyes


Think for a moment about a young boy in 1870s New York, born into an impoverished immigrant family, who is swept up in the movement to take destitute children away from their urban homes on “orphan trains” and send them to work in the West, on the farms of complete strangers. Or think about a newsgirl in the late 19th or early 20th century, struggling to make a living on the city streets and caught up in the movement to institute child labor regulations. 

The experiences of children can teach us volumes about our history–about education, religion, working conditions, warfare, domestic life, medicine and a multitude of other aspects of our past. But these experiences do not teach us volumes–because historians for too long have neglected to look into them. 

Fortunately, this situation has been changing, thanks to a new international trend in childhood studies. We are proud to be a part of that trend at the New-York Historical Society, where we are now in the midst of constructing our new DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Library. When this facility opens next year, as part of our overall renovation, visitors of all ages will see history as it was experienced by children like that boy on the orphan train, or that newsgirl on the street. 

Meanwhile, there is no waiting to relive the past through the experiences of yet another child–a famous one, as it happens–either at the New-York Historical Society or in a new book. The child, Elizabeth Evans Hughes, was the daughter of one of America’s most distinguished jurists and statesmen, Charles Evans Hughes. Her experience was a close brush with death, averted by a medical discovery that has since then saved countless lives. The book is Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Miracle by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg, and the exhibition (also titled Breakthrough) is on view now at the Historical Society, through January 31, 2011. 

Elizabeth Hughes, ca. 1923 courtesy of Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto


In 1918, when Elizabeth Hughes was 11, she was diagnosed with diabetes. This was tantamount to a death sentence. She was not expected to live beyond her 14th birthday. At that time, the only known method of prolonging the life of a diabetes patient–a method practiced by Elizabeth’s physician, Dr. Frederick Allen, the period’s greatest specialist in the disease–was to put the child on a starvation diet. Elizabeth was still holding on, and weighed just 45 pounds, three years after her initial diagnosis. That’s when an extraordinary team from the academic world, government and industry discovered insulin and rushed it into use. Elizabeth was one of the first patients to try the new drug. She lived to be 74 years old. 

The story of young Elizabeth Evans Hughes led us to think differently, as an institution organized around history, about the fight for life waged by medical patients almost a century ago and about the roles of science, government, higher education, and industry in creating and distributing the life-saving drug. Although our exhibition (curated by my colleagues Jean Ashton and Stephen Edidin) goes beyond Elizabeth’s experience to explore a wider field, up to the present day, a large part of its impact lies in revealing to the public what it meant, in a different era from our own, to be a sick child.

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