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Insulin 'Guinea Pig' Has Sweet Memories of What Saved His Life : Diabetes: When Urvan Ubben was diagnosed with the disease as a child, his parents were certain he would die. But they reckoned without a then-experimental treatment. Today, he's 77 and happy.


PEKIN, Ill. — In 1922, Urvan Ubben's parents had his "funeral picture" taken, certain he would be the next family member to die of diabetes.

Today, the 77-year-old laughs at the childhood photo and how he cheated death by being one of the first people to test insulin. Experts say he may be the world's oldest surviving diabetic.

"I was one of the guinea pigs when Eli Lilly was trying to mass-produce insulin in Indianapolis back in 1922," Ubben said. "In those days, they figured that if you had diabetes, you didn't have a chance. And my parents were highly skeptical of insulin.

"So when I came back from the experimental treatments in Indianapolis, my parents still thought I was going to die and they wanted a picture of me. So they had my picture taken.

"Years later, I was looking at my mother's old pictures with an aunt. When we came across that photo, she said: 'Urv, there's your funeral picture.' We just laughed about it."

Diabetes, a disease caused by excess sugar in the bloodstream, was no laughing matter when Ubben developed it in 1922.

Earlier that year, Ubben's sister, Theola, died after slipping into a diabetic coma. Ubben already had lost an aunt, an uncle and his great-grandfather to the disease.

"It was quite scary for my parents and they were pretty discouraged," Ubben said. "Insulin had just been discovered earlier that year; no one knew anything about it.

"Of course, now we know it's wonderful stuff. It's kept me alive all these years."

A spokeswoman at Eli Lilly & Co. in Indianapolis confirmed Ubben's 1922 diagnosis and his testing of insulin after its discovery in Toronto.

The pharmaceutical company is not sure if one other member of the first test group is alive. Ubben may be the oldest surviving diabetic, said Gene McCormick, retired Lilly historian.

Ubben suffered frequent bouts with diabetes-related illnesses brought on by ignoring doctors' orders to maintain a strict diet. He became partially blind from an attack in 1938.

He and his wife of nearly 53 years, Wilma, reared three children and worked a small farm. He later ran a coin-operated machine business and worked as a furniture maker and wood sculptor.

Ubben learned the dangers of insulin overdose when he experienced one of the first documented insulin reactions. After his treatment in Indianapolis, he was in a Peoria hospital for observation when he passed out.

"The doctor didn't have any idea what was wrong," said Ubben, who described the episode in an autobiography 10 years ago.

Because the hospital had no facilities to analyze Ubben's blood for sugar content, a specimen was raced to a doctor's laboratory by police.

The lab technician was at the movies. While Ubben's parents were summoned to their "dying" son's bedside, every theater in Peoria flashed an emergency message on the screen to locate the technician.

The message worked.

The technician raced back to her lab to study Ubben's blood and found the lowest blood sugar she had ever seen.

But the hospital had no glucose to counter the insulin overpowering Ubben's body.

So his doctor pried the unconscious boy's teeth apart, shoved a rubber hose down his throat and poured a bottle of corn syrup into his stomach in a crude effort to raise his blood sugar. Ubben was revived.

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