The 48thannual Friends of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library’s History of Medicine Dinner featuring award-winning journalist and author, Gary Taubes was a huge success!
2018 marked a very special milestone for the history of San Antonio and the Health Science Center. Events were held all around the city celebrating San Antonio’s tricentennial and still other ceremonies commemorating UT Health San Antonio’s semi-centennial.
This past year was thus a year full of historical celebrations. The Friends of the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, “Friends” for short, oversaw a number of very interesting lectures on the history of medicine, achieved the largest number of submissions to the Danny Jones History of the Health Sciences Essay Contest, and broke the attendance record for the Friends History of Medicine’s 48-year-old Dinner.
I served my one-year term as the presidents of the “Friends” from the Fall of 2017 until the night of the dinner, which was held on Friday Oct. 26, as the first student to hold the position in the Friends’ 48-year history. Being somewhat of a history buff, I got involved in with the Friends as a medical student in 2013 and have since helped organize events, invite lecturers, reach out to students, and even present a lecture myself on the history of brain mapping (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WyLEINXQ9k) last year.
This year’s dinner featuring award-winning investigative science journalist and best-selling author Gary Taubes, was attended by faculty members and students from UT Health SA, UIW, UTSA, Texas Biomed, Trinity University, UT Austin, Voelcker Biomedical Research Academy and the local community. A total of 122 individuals were in attendance, over two thirds of them newcomers to the Friends History of Medicine Dinner.
In his talk, Taubes meticulously unpacked the history of sugar and that of type II diabetes and obesity. He began by alluding to the notion that the earliest cases of type 2 diabetes in ancient India and Mesopotamia, along with obesity and gout, tended to be reserved for the wealthy. Observations that led early physicians to refer to them as “the diseases of kings.” As trade began to flourish across the Silk Road and through colonial expeditions into a new world, the natural human craving for sweetness followed. The discovery of the Americas, specifically the Caribbean islands, with their year-round tropical climate, became the “sugar basket” of the world. An environment perfectly suitable for the growth and cultivation of sugar cane, a type of grass native to the island of Papua, just north of Australia.
With the increased supply of sugar brought about by European colonizers and cultivated by African slaves, the supply of sugar began to expand, and with it, affordability. This trend of increasing supply to fulfill the human organism’s natural affinity towards sweetness kept growing and evolving exponentially over the years. From the development of sugar beets, to machine processing of sugar and flour, to the invention of sugary beverages, and even now when the modern American breakfast is indistinguishable from dessert due to its immense sugar content.
Fast forward to 2018. We currently live in an era we should be proud of. Slavery as an institution no longer exists, world equality among cultures, ethnic groups, and between the sexes is at an all-time high. Despite what we see in the news, deaths from war, famine, and infectious diseases – the greatest contributors to low life expectancy as recently as 60 years ago – are all being kept at bay by modern medicine, vaccines, technology and globalized trade.
Yet, despite this great peace currently in our midst, record high levels of life expectancy across the world, and record low levels of infant and maternal mortality, we have to contend with new diseases of the modern age, the diseases of civilization, as Gary Taube puts it.
One important point Taubes tackles harkens back to his book Good Calories Bad Calories, in which he challenges the hypothesis that all calories are created equal, that the body treats the consumption of 100 calories of fat the same way it does 100 calories of sugar. This widely-held belief was a gift to the sugar industry, Taubes argues, at a time in the mid 1900s when nutrition science was not yet sophisticated enough to yield conclusive results. He made the point, even citing the research of our very own Ralph DeFronzo, that insulin is the hormone responsible for converting blood sugar into fat. Thus, in a state of chronically elevated insulin, a state achieved with a diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and beverages, fat accumulation and insulin resistance follow. This leads to Metabolic Syndrome, a syndrome characterized by the effects of insulin resistance (obesity, hyperglycemia, hypertension, and dyslipidemia) that currently affects over one third of Americans and predisposes individuals to heart disease, diabetes, and early death, among other conditions.
Gary Taubes’s take-home message, which is elegantly summarized in his most recent book, The Case Against Sugar, reflected upon the notion that epidemic-levels of type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and even dementia can be traced back to the decadent substance that our primitive brains have evolved to crave, but not overindulge. Taubes is an advocate of a diet high in fat, protein, and complex carbohydrates, and absent of refined carbohydrates and sugar.
I don’t think anyone finished their dessert that night.
This article was written by Eithan Kotkowski, MD/PhD Candidate, Neuroscience Imaging at the Research Imaging Institute, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. Photo credit: Zahra Al-Mahdi.