Dr. William David Sansum, founder of the William Sansum Diabetes Center, was born in Wisconsin in 1880. When he was ten years old, he announced that he wanted to be a doctor. While pursuing this goal at Rush Medical College at the University of Chicago, he first became interested in diabetes–the subject of his doctoral thesis.By 1920, Dr. Sansum’s research and publications in the field of diabetes were well-known. Consequently, Cottage Hospital’s board of trustees invited him to Santa Barbara to replace Dr. Nathaniel Potter as Director of the Potter Metabolic Clinic at Cottage Hospital.
It was during this time that Dr. Sansum earned the nickname “Father Sansum.” He started taking children with diabetes to matinee vaudeville performances on Saturdays and the cashier would say to the doorman “Here comes Father Sansum with all his children.”
While Dr. Sansum was pursuing diabetes research in the early 1920’s, Dr. Frederick Banting was doing the same, specifically, trying to develop a compound that would duplicate the pancreatic secretions missing or deficient in the metabolism of people with diabetes. Banting teamed up with a fellow Canadian, Charles Best, and together they successfully treated animals and ultimately humans with the extract they developed. This work led to a Nobel Prize for Dr. Banting. They named their extract “insulin”, from the Latin for “island”, referring to the Islets of Langerhans found in the pancreas.
The news of this development traversed the globe. In Santa Barbara, Dr. Sansum decided to pursue the same direction in his research — the production of insulin from animal pancreases. At this point, only minuscule amounts of insulin were available. Researchers everywhere were trying to develop better methods and to increase purity and strength for use in humans. On May 31, 1922; after two years of research by Dr. Sansum and his staff, the first American patient was injected with U.S.-made insulin at the Potter Clinic. The 51-year-old patient was believed to be terminally ill, however, due to Sansum’s care, he lived to be 90 years old. He outlived Dr. Sansum by 10 years.
In 1926, the Potter Metabolic Clinic was merged with Cottage Hospital’s research programs. Dr. Sansum continued work in the areas of diet and education, major components of diabetes care today, published books and articles, and gave lectures on these subjects.
In 1928, Dr. Sansum decided to form his own clinic group, which by mid-1929 had a staff of five physicians including Dr. Hildahl Burtness. Later, Dr. Sansum was encouraged to build a clinic on Pueblo Street across from Cottage Hospital, which opened in June of 1931 with a staff of eleven physicians.
Dr. Sansum retired from active practice in 1942, but continued his research efforts, including work on an orally-administered form of insulin.
Two years later, Dr. Sansum’s brother died of a heart attack as had both of their parents. Faced with his own mortality, Dr. Sansum wanted to ensure research in diabetes and diabetes-related diseases would continue after his death. To realize his vision, he founded the Sansum Clinic Foundation in 1944. Later the Foundation’s name was changed to Sansum Medical Research Foundation and to Sansum Diabetes Research Institute, and is currently the William Sansum Diabetes Center.
In 1947 Dr. Sansum began work on a new vision that was thirty years ahead of his time– pancreatic cell transplantation. A year later, while working in his research laboratory at Cottage Hospital, he suffered a stroke and died.
After Dr. Sansum’s death, the clinic was reorganized and purchased by six of the doctors on the staff. The research foundation, headed by Dr. Alfred Koehler, continued to work on the projects that Dr. Sansum had been involved in.In 1955, Dr. Hildahl Burtness took over as president. Dr. Casimir Domz was director of laboratories on a part-time basis, a post he held for 17 years. The infusion of funds from a trust set up by an early patient of Dr. Sansum at the old Potter Metabolic Clinic helped further research in diabetes.
The Foundation still did not have a place of its own for research. This problem was resolved in 1966 when a two-story building that still houses the William Sansum Diabetes Center today was built with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Harry Morrison and others. Full-scale diabetes research began soon thereafter in the Morrison Laboratories under Dr. Donald McMillan.
In 1985, an additional laboratory, classrooms and researchers’ offices, an administrative wing, and a clinical third floor were added. In 2006, the upper level was remodeled into the contemporary Diabetes Research & Care Center.
Although much has happened since 1920, one thing has not changed– the goal to cure diabetes, or at least to alleviate the suffering caused by this devastating disease. The legacy continues today under the leadership of Rem Laan, who was appointed Executive Director in 2013.