Dorothy Hodgkin looked at how atoms fit together into very complicated molecules. She used X-ray crystallography to find out what penicillin and insulin look like. Knowing what the molecules look like has helped other scientists understand how these molecules work, and to make new medicines.

Answers to quiz

"Check to see if ants and other insects are attracted to your sugary urine."
The Hindu doctor Sushruta Samhita described how insects were attracted to the urine of people with diabetes indicating there was glucose in the urine.

"Grind up a mixture of acorn, copper, wild pomegranate flower and make a drink with rose water."
The roman doctor Galen recommended this potion.

"Have a taste of your urine.  If you have diabetes it will taste a bit like honey"
Tom Willis tasted the urine of a diabetic patient and concluded it tasted like honey.

"Go on a strict diet and eat as much fatty and rancid old meat that you can find.  Blood puddings are also a good idea."
John Rollo produced this diet which was slightly effective in treating patients with type 2 diabetes.

"You should eat as little as possible.  In fact on some days you shouldn't eat at all."
This diet was produced by Apollinaire Bouchardat, observing that diabetic patients on rations seemed better with less food.

"You can have an injection of insulin taken from a cow to stop the worst symptoms."
These were the first patients treated with insulin, by Banting, Best and Collip.

"You are to be offered a pancreas transplant.  You will keep your old one in place and have a new one attached."

"You can have some humulin - human insulin created by genetically engineered E. Coli"
Humulin is identical to human insulin.

"You are now on the waiting list for pancreatic islet transplantation.  The part of the pancreas that produces insulin will be attached to your liver."


Curriculum Links

Breaking down sugar

Working scientifically

Scientific attitudes

  • understand that scientific methods and theories develop as earlier explanations and are modified to take account of new evidence and ideas, together with the importance of publishing results and peer review
  • Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day

Scottish Curriculum Links:


SCN 3-12a

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I have explored the structure and function of organs and organ systems and can relate this to the basic biological processes required to sustain life.


SCN 3-12b

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I have explored the role of technology in monitoring health and improving the quality of life.


SCN 4-12a

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I can explain how biological actions which take place in response to external and internal changes work to maintain stable body conditions.


SCN 3-13c

Biological systems - Body systems and cells

I have explored how the body defends itself against disease and can describe how vaccines can provide protection.


SCN 4-08b

Forces, electricity and waves - Forces


SCN 4-15a

Materials - Properties and uses of substances


TCH 3-01a

Technological developments in society

Breaking down sugar

The hormone insulin is produced in the pancreas.  Insulin is a hormone that breaks down glucose. People with the disease type 1 diabetes do not produce enough insulin, so must inject extra into their bodies.  Without it, diabetic people would have too much glucose in their blood, causing long term damage to their body.

In 1969, Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of insulin - see the diagram below, which she published in a scientific paper.  Since then, further research has allowed scientists to produce artificial insulin. Thanks to this research, patients today have a choice of insulin. Some are fast acting while others act over a long period of time - whichever suits the patient.

Key fact: Because scientists worked out the structure of insulin, people with diabetes today are better able to cope with their condition.

A diagrammatic structure of the insulin molecule



Living with diabetes

When we eat, our body breaks down some of the food into glucose.  The glucose is absorbed into our blood and is used as fuel for all the cells in our body.

Having too much glucose in the blood for a long time can damage the eyes, kidney and heart.  So the body controls the amount of glucose that is in the blood.

  1. When there is lots of glucose in the blood, the pancreas (the organ in the body that produces some of the hormones and enzymes we need) is stimulated to make insulin.
  2. This insulin tells other parts of the body to start using up or storing the extra glucose.
  3. And so the amount of glucose in the blood drops.

People with diabetes have problems controlling the amount of glucose in their blood. They either cannot produce the insulin (type 1 diabetes) or their bodies don't respond to the insulin (type 2 diabetes).

Key fact: Insulin is a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose we have in our blood.


People have known about diabetes for thousands of years.  What year would you have first been given these doctor's orders?

Take the online quiz here,

or download the pdf worksheet.