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HG Wells, founder of Diabetes UK

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As Diabetes UK celebrates its 75th Anniversary, Joe Fraser investigates how the country’s premier diabetes charity came into being:

In 1934 the Diabetic Association was co-founded by the science fiction author and political commentator, HG Wells, and the pioneering physician, RD Lawrence. Wells had been diagnosed in 1930 with ‘mild diabetes’ (there was no distinction at the time between type1 and type2), when he was in his early 60s. Lawrence had been diagnosed in 1919, three years before the discovery of insulin, so he knew first-hand the devastating effects the condition could have if untreated.

The life of the Diabetic Association began with Lawrence calling upon his richer patients, of which Wells was one, to give money to help set up a new diabetic ward at King’s College Hospital in 1933. Wells donated a meagre 2/6d, which left the doctor fairly unimpressed. The author claimed he was poor and that “such charity should be and was the concern of all diabetics.” To make up for his lack of funds he wrote a letter to The Times, asking wealthy diabetics to donate to Lawrence’s cause. With the influence of the author’s literary celebrity the appeal was a resounding success, to the extent that just over a year later Wells wrote again to the paper proposing the formation of the Diabetic Association.

The Association’s founding principles as set out in HG Wells’s letter are broadly similar to those of the modern Diabetes UK. He declared the Diabetic Association should be “open… to all diabetics, rich and poor, for mutual aid and assistance, and to promote the study, the diffusion of knowledge, and the proper treatment of diabetes in this country”.

The Association implemented these principles by making sure all diabetics had access to insulin, no matter their financial constraints. This progressive thinking led to the Association campaigning not only for a national health service, but also for patients to have a greater say in their treatment. It is testament to the co-founders’ futuristic ideals that this latter idea was finally accepted across the NHS 50 years later.

Clearly the Diabetic Association was way ahead of its time, but this is not to say it hasn’t evolved. Its most obvious change has been its name, first to the British Diabetic Association in 1954 and then to the present Diabetes UK in 2000. With the name changes the charity has taken a broader approach to the subject of diabetes. It still promotes and funds research as it did in the very beginning (up to £7.3m a year, more than any other UK organisation) but its remit now includes all those affected by the disease – the carers, families and communities of patients. It takes a doctor to tell you how to treat the disease, but Diabetes UK to help you live with it. The charity does this not only by raising awareness of the condition and campaigning for the better treatment of patients but also by providing information through its magazine, Balance, and its website www.diabetes.org.uk. In both these places you can find advice on all manner of diabetic subjects from specialised menus and product information to interviews with patients and explanations of complications.

The importance of sharing information on the disease was made clear by HG Wells all the way back in 1934 when he wrote that “the Association will indeed seek to co-ordinate knowledge and effort in such a way as to bring the life of all diabetics as near to normal as possible.” Ambition is the only difference between the charity of the 20th and 21st centuries. Then the goal was to be “as… normal as possible”; now Diabetes UK looks to a “future without diabetes”. So let us celebrate the 75 years of Diabetes UK and wish it Happy Returns (but hopefully not too many!).

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