HG Wells: The first celebrity charity campaigner?

H G Wells HG Wells was involved in the campaign to raise funds for an association

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"It is proposed to form a diabetic association open ultimately to all diabetics, rich or poor, for mutual aid or assistance, and to promote the study, the diffusion of knowledge, and the proper treatment of diabetes in this country."

So wrote HG Wells in a letter to the Times 80 years ago, in 1934.

The author, famed for being an early pioneer of science-fiction writing, also had a strong interest in helping people with diabetes - because he was one of them.

A year before, another letter from him had appeared in the newspaper appealing for funds to support the diabetes clinic at King's College Hospital in London.

Start Quote

The Times

Something psychologically and socially valuable had been discovered - the latent solidarity of people subject to a distinctive disorder”

End Quote HG Wells

Its success led the renowned thinker to believe people were willing to support a more adventurous enterprise.

"Something psychologically and socially valuable had been discovered: the latent solidarity of people subject to a distinctive disorder," he wrote in 1934.

More prosperous people with diabetes were to be approached, to pay £5 to become members of the Diabetes Association, which would then work for everyone with the condition.

HG Wells wrote more than 100 books, including the science-fiction tales The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine.

But it was his doctor Robert Daniel (RD) Lawrence who persuaded him to lead the campaign to raise funds for diabetes.

Dr Lawrence's clinic at King's College Hospital in London had become cramped and outdated, so in 1933 he asked some of his more affluent patients for contributions.

Wells initially gave just 2s 6d to fund the association, pleading poverty.

But when Lawrence complained, Wells wrote his first letter to the Times - appealing for others to contribute funds - and got the funding needed for new and improved facilities.

'Insulin, it works. Come quick'
RD Lawrence RD Lawrence was one of the first recipients of insulin

Dr Lawrence had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1920, when there was no effective treatment and the condition was fatal.

He moved to Italy, expecting to live out his last few years there. But in early 1923, he received a telegram from a colleague at King's Hospital London that said: "Insulin, it works. Come quick."

His biographer and daughter-in-law Jane Lawrence tells how, by that point, he was "dwindling away" but he made it back across Europe and received his first dose of insulin in May of that year."

RD Lawrence went on to become a leading figure in forging understanding of diabetes as a condition and fighting for those with it be able to live normal lives.

His writings helped define how diabetes was viewed for decades. His book The Diabetic Life was first published in 1925, ran to 14 editions and was published in many languages. A practical guide to living with diabetes, The Diabetic ABC, was published in 1929.

Forming the Diabetic Association was part of that. Dr Lawrence was elected chairman - a position he held until 1961 - while HG Wells became president.

Jane Lawrence says: "This was the first patient-centred association in the world. It was so unusual in those days where the doctor was 'god'."

High-fat diet

Not long before this, type 1 diabetes had been a death sentence. People with the condition needed insulin - and it was only used in humans in 1922.

Two types of diabetes

  • Type 1 diabetes develops when the insulin-producing cells in the body have been destroyed and the body is unable to produce any insulin. It usually appears before the age of 40, and especially in childhood. It is treated with daily insulin injections.
  • Type 2 diabetes normally appears in people over the age of 40 and develops when the insulin-producing cells in the body are unable to produce enough insulin, or when the insulin that is produced does not work properly. It is treated with a healthy diet and increased physical activity, but medication and insulin are often required.

Even in the 1930s, people would only have had access to insulin if they could afford it and life would not have been pleasant, even for them.

They would have had to use large, thick needles to administer insulin, which was from animals and not fully purified and so there was a high risk of allergic reactions. Today, most insulin is made in laboratories.

The needles they used would have needed to be washed and sterilised every day - as well as sharpened regularly.

They were given a fixed amount of insulin - so would have to eat the right amount of food to counteract this, whether or not this left them feeling too full or still hungry.

And their diet had to be around 70% fat.

One of the association's first campaigns was for free access to insulin, well before the formation of the NHS.

'Following in the footsteps'

The organisation became the British Diabetic Association in 1954 and Diabetes UK in 2000.

It is now a charity with an annual income of £28m, with 300,000 supporters across the UK.

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The experiment ... might not end with diabetics”

End Quote HG Wells

There are 3.2m people diagnosed with the condition, and an estimated 630,000 who have diabetes, but don't know it. Around 90% have type 2, which usually develops over the age of 40 when people produce too little insulin - or the insulin produced fails to work properly. Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor.

Barbara Young, Diabetes UK's current chief executive, said: "All of us who work at Diabetes UK are immensely proud of our heritage, as it is hugely inspiring to follow in the footsteps of an author of the stature of HG Wells and an eminent physician like RD Lawrence.

"Diabetes UK's work during the 80 years since Wells wrote his letter to the Times is one of the reasons why life for people with diabetes today is much better than it was in 1934."

Wells was also prescient in seeing how the patient-group model might expand.

In yet another prediction of the future, he envisaged the plethora of health groups we have now, writing: "The experiment ... might not end with diabetics."

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