Insulin Pump Changes Diabetes Treatment

Robert Sherwin, MD

Like many discoveries, the development of the first insulin pump was a combination of ingenuity and teamwork. In 1979, Yale doctors were conducting studies to figure out the best way to deliver insulin to children who suffer from diabetes. They discovered that giving small amounts continuously with larger doses at meals worked better than giving one large dose, because this more closely resembles the way the pancreas produces insulin. Unfortunately, there was no easy way to accomplish this. Around the same time, another Yale doctor was using a portable pump to help solve a different problem: delivering medicine to children who had a dangerous buildup of iron due to frequent blood transfusions.

William Tamborlane, MD

Dr. Robert Sherwin, Dr. William Tamborlane and their colleagues realized this pump would be ideal for applying what they had learned about insulin delivery to their patients. The insulin pump was first tested in seven children with diabetes and the results were spectacular. Dr. Tamborlane remembers staying overnight in the hospital so that he could monitor the results. When he began to see that blood sugar levels remained stable in his young patients, he knew that he and the other Yale doctors had hit upon a novel and effective treatment for diabetes. The insulin pump, which today has evolved into a device the size of a beeper, continues to gain momentum; last year 350,000 diabetic patients used it and its popularity continues to grow. Without volunteers like the children and their families who were willing to take a chance on an exciting new treatment, this groundbreaking discovery would not have been possible.

First insulin pump 1979

Diabetes researchers at Yale in 1979 with the first insulin pump (from left): Myron Genel, MD, professor emeritus of pediatrics; William Tamborlane, MD, professor of pediatrics; Robert Sherwin, MD, CNH Long Professor of Medicine and section chief, endocrinology.