Jean De Meyer

Jean De Meyer (1878-1934) was a Belgian clinician and physiologist mainly known to diabetologists for coining the term "insulin" thirteen years before this was finally isolated. Jean-Egide-Camille-Philippe-Hubert De Meyer entered the Free University of Brussels in 1897 and qualified with honours in 1905 in addition to taking degrees in botany and physiology. He joined the physiology laboratory at the University of Brussels as an Assistant in 1907 and rose through the ranks to become Professor of Pathology in 1924. Poor health forced his retirement in 1932. His work on the pancreas was conducted over the period 1904-10, and he was awarded a thesis for work on the internal secretion of the pancreas in 1910. The remainder of his career was mainly devoted to cardiovascular physiology, including work on the recently developed technique of electrocardiography.

Studies of the Pancreas

Bruxelles Medical 1933-1934 p.1199
Bruxelles Medical 1933-1934 p.1199
His main focus was upon the (still hypothetical) internal secretion of the pancreas. It was by that time well known that extirpation of the pancreas induced fatal diabetes, but many researchers believed that this was the consequence of damage to the nerve plexus consequent upon removal of the pancreas, rather to loss of any function served by the pancreas itself. His work helped to demonstrate that diabetes was a direct result of loss of the pancreas, indicating loss of an internal secretion.

Thus it was that he wrote in 1909 that "the internal secretion of the pancreas (not as yet named) and which, if derived, as we believe, from the islets of Langerhans, could be called insulin" (insuline in the original French)[1]. In this he was followed by Edward Sharpey-Schafer (1850-1935), writing in 1916. Mercifully, perhaps, this came to replace the term Iletin favoured by Frederick Banting.

More specifically, De Meyer showed that addition of pancreatic extract to otherwise inactive serum gave it glucose-lowering properties. He also developed a serum which proved capable of inhibiting the glucose-lowering activity of plasma (possibly because it contained insulin antibodies?). He suggested that insulin acted directly upon the kidneys to regulate the excretion of glucose[1].

More convincingly, he went on to demonstrate that hepatic glycogen formation was directly promoted by the infusion of pancreatic extract. He demonstrated this by perfusing the liver of a diabetic dog (which contains no glycogen) with his extract, and showing that this resulted in glycogen formation[2].

Later Career

Jean De Meyer played an important role in the development of clinical science in Belgium, interrupted by the 1914-18 war, during which his laboratory was converted for a period into a casualty clearing station. His career was a distinguished one, but he must at times have regretted his failure to pursue his researches into insulin, and to discover the internal secretion that he was the first to name.

His obituary comments that despite a somewhat brusque exterior he was the best of friends, a man of wide interests and a music lover whose friends sang Schubert's Requiem at his funeral[3].


  1. ^ J De Meyer:Action de la secretion interne du pancreas sur differents organes et en particulier sur la secretion renale. Archivio de Physiologia 1909;7:96-99

  2. ^ J De Meyer. Sur les relations entre la secretion interne du pancreas et la fonction glycogenique du foie. Archives Internationales de Physiologie 1910;9:1-100

  3. ^ Bremer F. Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Jean De Meyer.


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