Honors Program


Document Type


Date of this Version

Spring 3-10-2022


Thompson, Olivia. Starvation Diets: The History and Moral Implications of Prolonging the Lives of Juvenile Diabetics Before the Discovery of Insulin. Undergraduate Honors Thesis. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 2022.


Copyright Olivia Thompson 2022.


This study explores the state of diabetology before Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin in 1921, when juvenile diabetes was a terminal diagnosis. The widespread misunderstanding of the disease at the hands of physicians and scientists culminated in improper treatments and erroneous anatomical literature about diabetes until the age of discovery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More extensively, I examine the controversial work of 20th-century physician Frederick Madison Allen, who attempted to prolong the lives of juvenile diabetics by subjecting them to a rigid starvation diet by way of experimental trials lasting from 1915 to 1922. This diet limited their total caloric intake and delayed the onset of the then-terminal symptoms (specifically, acidosis) of the disease. Though Allen’s work yielded promising results and enabled some patients to live long enough to benefit from life-saving insulin, this was done at the expense of the comfort and emotional well-being of his patients, some of which were under the age of ten. I work to examine the efficacy and morality of said experimental trials by analyzing Allen’s accounts of his own work, case studies, the opinions of his contemporaries, and retrospective analyses of his efforts by medical historians. Ultimately, I conclude that Allen’s experimental trials, while possessing numerous instances of ethical defiance and moral ambiguity, was a worthwhile effort, for afforded some diabetics the time and opportunity to manage their diabetes with insulin therapy.