Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

Aberdeen doctor who became ‘champion’ for diabetes patients around the world

Retired ARI diabetes consultant Ken McHardy at  the birthplace of Robert Lawrence at 10 Ferryhill Place.
Retired ARI diabetes consultant Ken McHardy at  the birthplace of Robert Lawrence at 10 Ferryhill Place.

There was a time when the diagnosis of diabetes, particularly at a younger age, inevitably meant a death sentence.

But millions of lives have been saved since the discovery of insulin almost 100 years ago – and an Aberdeen doctor was one of the first patients to benefit.

Doctor Robert Daniel (RD) Lawrence was diagnosed with the condition at the age of 28 in 1920, and the hormone saved his life allowing him to reach the age of 85 upon his death in 1968.

Today, retired consultant Ken McHardy, who worked at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for more than 30 years, has told how the pioneering doctor went on to become a “champion” for diabetes patients across the world.

Diabetes diagnosis

Lawrence studied medicine at Aberdeen University and was working at King’s College Hospital in London as an assistant surgeon in the ear, nose and throat department when tests revealed he had diabetes.

Ken said: “He used to go to the mortuary to practise his skills on skulls and a chip of bone flew into his eye. He got a nasty eye infection and had to be admitted to his own hospital.

“It was during that admission that they tested his urine and found it was full of sugar and he had diabetes. This was in November of 1920 and at that time there was no medication for what came to be known as type 1 diabetes.

“The treatment was supplemented starvation – a very stringent diet – that helped people live a few months longer, but at the expense of weakness and wasting.”

‘Barely able to walk up stairs’

Lawrence abandoned his dreams of being a surgeon and moved into the department of clinical biochemistry where he carried out research instead.

But he left the UK soon afterwards as his condition deteriorated.

Ken said: “The diabetes was getting so bad, he was so weak that he decided he would leave the UK, go to the milder climate in Florence, do some private practice among expatriates and in due course wither away and die, out of sight of friends and family.”

Within a few more months, when he was barely able to walk up stairs, and numbness in his fingers and feet indicated he had peripheral neuropathy, he thought his end was near.

Luckily, Lawrence’s illness came at a time when insulin was discovered and supplies started arriving in the UK in 1923.

A graphic showing how insulin works in the body's cells
Credit: Shutterstock

And when he received a telegram from Geoffrey Harrison, his friend and colleague at King’s: “I’ve got insulin. Come quick. It works”, he loaded up his Morris car and enlisted a chauffeur to drive him home.

Ken added: “Lawrence was too weak and frail by then to do much of the driving. They got back to the King’s College Hospital and he was admitted there. At 10am on the 31st of May 1923 – when he would surely have been just weeks from death – he was given his first injection of insulin.

“He went on to become a major champion for diabetes patients, founding the diabetic clinic at King’s College Hospital, publishing lots of research on the effects of diet, exercise, and other factors alongside insulin, often with himself as the main subject.”

Lawrence embarked on a new career as a diabetes specialist; his 1925 book called ‘The Diabetic Life’ was written for both patients and doctors and ran to 17 editions over 40 years.

A champion for diabetes patients

And in 1934 with the help of his patient, science fiction writer HG Wells, he started the Diabetic Association to help improve the lives of those with diabetes. It is now known as the charity Diabetes UK.

Aberdeen doctor RD Lawrence wearing a suit
Aberdeen doctor Robert Daniel Lawrence.

Ken said: “This was an organisation to foster education and peer support for people with diabetes and promote research in the subject. In due course there were lots of patient-run local groups set up – I think there are more than 400 of these now. It was a pioneering idea.

“He championed things such as normalising the condition so that people with diabetes could live normal, active, working lives free from discrimination.

“He was clearly quite a man.”

RD Lawrence also went on to become the first the president of the International Diabetic Federation in 1950, helping to promote diabetes care and prevention worldwide.

He was born at 10 Ferryhill Place in Aberdeen in 1892 and died on 27 August 1968 – his life prolonged by more than 40 years due to insulin.

Today’s rising number of diabetes cases

For some years now many countries have shown a dramatic rise in numbers of patients with diabetes.

The most up to date figures from the 2019 Scottish Diabetes Survey show there were 30,251 people with all types of diabetes in Grampian compared to 22,481 in 2009, up by more than a third.

In the Highlands, the figure has risen to 18,751 from 13,158 over the same decade.

A graphic explaining the symptoms of diabetes
Credit: Shutterstock

Diabetes UK organises Diabetes Week every year which runs from 14 – 20 June.

Douglas Twenefour, Deputy Head of Care at Diabetes UK, said insulin continues to play an important role in the care of patients.

He said: “Insulin is a vital part of managing diabetes for all people with type 1 diabetes and some people with type 2 diabetes.

“For people with type 1 diabetes, taking insulin is essential. Without insulin, blood sugar levels can become dangerously high, and can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which if left untreated can be life-threatening.

“The number of people with diabetes is increasing year-on-year, and preventing cases of type 2 diabetes must be a public health priority.

“With the right support, up to half of type 2 diabetes cases − and the accompanying risk of developing life-threatening complications − can be delayed or prevented.”