Remembering Alabama's Sugar Pioneer
By Cary Estes
Long before the Kool-Aid Man crashed through his first wall and Count Chocula began invading the American breakfast table, Seale Harris, M.D., saw the sugar rush that was coming and the dangers it would bring.
A native of Georgia, Harris moved to Birmingham after serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during the First World War. With degrees from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins and a prewar stint at the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile to recommend him, Harris quickly built a reputation as one of the most distinguished clinicians in the state. He was a prolific writer and an endlessly curious researcher who was accomplished in so many fields that he earned the nickname “the Benjamin Franklin of medicine.” In 1920, he opened the Seale Harris Clinic and shortly thereafter built the 50-bed Gorgas Hospital—later Highland Baptist Hospital and now Trinity Medical Center—next to his home.
In his clinic and hospital, Harris treated patients with the puzzling endocrine disorder known as diabetes. “Back then, people didn’t really understand the disease,” says James H. Crenshaw, M.D., a physician at the Seale Harris Clinic whose father, James F. Crenshaw, M.D., worked with Harris in the 1940s and ’50s. “If you got diabetes, it was a death sentence. You were usually dead in a few months. Your blood sugar would go up, and there was nothing to combat it.”
But then in 1922 a group of Canadian scientists discovered a way to extract the hormone insulin from animals and use it to treat diabetic patients. Harris was intrigued, and he traveled to Toronto to meet with the researchers and examine their patients.
Back then, people didn't really understand the disease. If you got diabetes, it was a death sentence."
Back in Alabama, Harris applied what he learned in new ways. He noticed that many of his own nondiabetic patients were experiencing the same symptoms—including headaches, dizziness, and mood swings—that were being seen in diabetic patients who injected themselves with too much insulin (a condition known as insulin shock). Harris experimented with his patients’ diets and developed a theory that certain foods—especially those high in sugar—cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin. This hyperinsulinism, as Harris called it, creates another problem: The excess insulin surging into the blood in response to high-sugar meals sweeps large amounts of glucose out of the bloodstream and into surrounding cells, leaving too little glucose behind to carry on normal body functions.
Harris announced his discoveries in 1924; he also presented a solution—a low-sugar diet that controlled both insulin production and the weight gain seen in many patients. This treatment brought patients to the Seale Harris Clinic from as far away as Europe, but Harris’s peers did not immediately accept his theories. “It was one of those things that the medical community dismissed,” says Crenshaw. “But he was persistent in proving it. We know now that in the prediabetic state, patients actually have an abundance of insulin—the problem is the body becomes resistant to that insulin.”
Harris’s breakthrough discovery gradually gained acceptance and eventually brought him international recognition. In 1949, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest scientific honor given by the American Medical Association. He served at various times as president of the Southern Medical Association, the Medical Association of the State of Alabama, and the American Medical Editors Association before his death in 1957.
By then, it was becoming apparent that the processed and sugary foods that began to transform the American diet after World War II were indeed creating significant health effects, just as Harris had warned. “He accurately described the hyperinsulinism processes back in the 1920s, before anybody else thought it through,” Crenshaw says. “It was amazing that he had such foresight.”