Miriam E Tucker

September 23, 2016

MUNICH — After Anja Neumann was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 20 months of age — almost 25 years ago — her father's search for new tools to help her took a side turn.

Werner Neumann began amassing what would become an unparalleled historical collection of all things diabetes-related and eventually decided to turn it into a museum. Diabetes Museum Munich, now in its 10th year, occupies two rooms of the Neumann family home in the German city.

Werner and Anja Neumann in Diabetes Museum Munich

"My dad was looking at new technologies and asking, how can I bring them to my daughter? In 2001, he saw two old items on eBay. He bought them, and after that he never stopped," Anja, now 24 years old, told Medscape Medical News.

Those two items were a "Polarimeter" used in Germany in the 1950s for urine glucose testing, and a "Kolorimeter" for blood glucose testing from 1935. Both devices required users to mix the substance with chemicals, cook up the brew, compare the result with a color chart, and clean up the mess afterward.

Today, Anja wears a contemporary insulin pump and a continuous glucose sensor. She, her father, and mother Petra clearly share a great appreciation and passion for the way the technology has evolved.

In a booth at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) 2016 Annual Meeting last week, Anja, Werner, and Petra displayed a sampling of old urine-testing equipment, early blood glucose meters, lancets, insulin vials, and insulin-delivery devices including syringes, pens, and early-model insulin pumps.

As a companion to the discussions of the latest sophisticated technology at the EASD meeting, the booth offered a unique perspective on what had come before.

"I remember that one!" was a common refrain among attendees who stopped by. Some made appointments to visit the museum in the evenings during the conference.

Two Rooms of Diabetes History

The Neumanns' collection includes over 600 blood glucose meters with strips, 125 unique insulin vials, and about 70 insulin pumps (not counting doubles, which are stored).

Other museum objects include early medicines for treating type 2 diabetes (some of questionable scientific merit) and shelves full of artificial sweeteners and special foods and drinks marketed specifically as "diabetic" items — including "extra-dry" alcohol.

Old diabetes medications

There are also original newspaper clippings about diabetes or people associated with it, diabetes-themed stamps and postmarks, stuffed animals used as marketing tools (including the famous "Lilly Doll"), and even an actual pancreas, encased in plastic.

"Everything that has diabetes on it, or in it, we have," Anja notes.

One of the oldest items is a 605-page book about diabetes that was originally written in English in by a Scottish physician in 1798 and translated into German in 1801.

Sacchometer from 1850

Another antique is a machine from 1850 called a "saccharometer" that checks sugar levels in liquids. "This is the mother or father of all those diabetic devices," Anja says.

Most of the items come either from eBay — Werner checks it almost every day, looking for objects he knows exist but hasn't found yet — or from individual donors.

While there are other diabetes museums in the world — including two others in Germany and one in Canada, as well as numerous permanent and temporary diabetes-themed exhibits housed within medical or science museums — none are known to contain the breadth of items in the Neumanns' collection.

"Other museums just reflect technical stuff.…We have a whole view around diabetes," observes Anja.

Both Werner and Anja work full time — he as a plumber, and she as a manager for a diabetes supplier. She is also in school studying business administration. She's not sure exactly what she wants to do with the degree, but says she may stay in the field of diabetes technology, given that "I have a lot of knowledge you can't buy anywhere, from doing this museum."

Appreciation, Online and in Person

Larry Kricka, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Philadelphia, has donated about a dozen items to the museum, including some small handheld glucose meters from different periods.

"It was nice to find a home for these things. Many of them are items people throw away when they become outmoded," he told Medscape Medical News in an interview after the meeting.

Dr Kricka hasn't visited the museum in person, but he has pored through the website pages.

"When I discovered it, I was just amazed at the scope of the material they have....I think it's important to see the progression of technology, to see how things have evolved, how various people over time have sought to solve the problem of testing glucose, and how it has become easier to perform with more accurate results over time. It's a very positive thing."

And, he notes, virtual exhibits like the Neumanns' museum website are valuable in and of themselves, both in preserving the legacy of objects and in making them accessible to wider audiences. Indeed, he's involved through the history division of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry in an online exhibit of clinical analyzers.

Another medical-technology fan, Rudolf Chlup, MD, professor of medicine at Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic, was among the lucky EASD attendees who did visit Diabetes Museum Munich.

Asked for his impression, he told Medscape Medical News, "It really is worthy of visiting and also of supporting further development, as the space of two rooms appears to be insufficient for hundreds of pieces of interesting materials."

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