Dr. Priscilla White

Diabetes is one of the biggest health challenges today and there are scores of dedicated people working hard to find a cure. While we have made great strides in the treatment, according to the CDC nearly 26 million people in the United States have diabetes today.

According to the former American Diabetes Association President Dr. Francine Kaufman the disease is starting earlier: “Type 2 diabetes has changed from a disease of our grandparents and parents to a disease of our children. As more and more children and young adults develop this devastating disease, it has become apparent that we have much to learn about who in the pediatric population is at risk to develop type 2 diabetes, why they develop this disease, how to treat it, and, most importantly, how to prevent this ‘new epidemic’ from destroying future generations of Americans.”

As ominous as this sounds, we are light-years ahead of where we were in the 1920’s. Diabetes was often fatal. There was no wonder drug until the advent of insulin, and we had a local resident who played a contributing role in its development: Dr. Priscilla White.

Priscilla White was born March 17, 1900 in Boston. The daughter of an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, Priscilla White was a graduate of Tufts University in 1923. A year prior, and while still in medical school, she worked at the Lahey Clinic where Dr. Elliot Joslin asked her to work on testing new medications for diabetics. She was quoted as saying: “We did not know what was being used, but we were all impressed by dramatic changes in the tests from patients.” Little did she know she was working with the first form of insulin.

Later, in 1924, Dr. Joslin asked Dr. White to work with him at the Joslin Clinic where she was tasked with working with juvenile diabetics. It was a challenging task she accepted willingly, working with children that would eventually bring their disease into adulthood. She was primarily concerned with women who would later become pregnant. The mortality rate for fetuses was around 54% when she began her efforts, and she could proudly say she was instrumental in eventually achieving a 90% survival rate.

Her work at the Joslin Clinic opened the door to worldwide recognition. She was invited to work in several European institutions including Denmark where she assisted Dr. Hans Christian Hagedorn in his development of protamine zinc insulin (PZI) in 1936.

Her career spanned 50 years until her retirement in 1975. She was a founder of the Clara Barton Birthplace Camp for Diabetic Girls, and the Pregnancy Clinic collaboration of Beth Israel Deaconess and the Joslin Clinic. She received honorary degrees form Tufts, Middlebury College, and Hobart and William Smith College. She also received the Radcliffe Alumni Achievement award where she began her education before transferring to Tufts. She also received the Banting Medal, which is the highest scientific award of the American Diabetes Association.

Dr. White retired to her home on Cordaville Road in Ashland, but kept in touch with colleges and maintained her passion for the treatment of diabetes. Her comment to the Directions in an article featuring her in 1980 was “I began my work with diabetes at the end of the pre-insulin era, and I expect to see the end of the insulin era within my lifetime.”

Dr. White died of a heart attack on Dec. 16, 1989. I’m sorry to say her dream was unfulfilled, but I can honestly say all of us with diabetes are grateful for her contributions.

Thanks for original material by Joanne Cloutier and Kris Daisley (Ashland Directions-1980).

Visit the Wikipedia page on Dr. Priscilla White here:

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
October 2012