The role of our Pancreas

Pancreas Anatomy

“Insulin is produced in the pancreas. Without insulin the glucose cannot enter our cells.”

The pancreas is an important organ, part of our digestive system. Insulin is produced in the pancreas, when protein is ingested insulin is released.

The pancreas has two principal functions:

  • It produces pancreatic digestive juices.
  • It produces insulin and other digestive hormones.

The endocrine pancreas is the part of the pancreas that produces insulin and other hormones and the exocrine pancreas is the part of the pancreas that produces digestive juices.

Insulin is also released when glucose is present in the blood, without glucose in our cells they would not be able to function. After eating carbohydrates, blood glucose levels rise and insulin makes it possible for glucose to enter our body’s cells. Without insulin the glucose cannot enter our cells.

The word pancreas comes from the Greek pankreas, meaning sweetbread.

It is located high up in your abdomen and lies across your body where the ribs meet at the bottom. It is shaped like a leaf and is about six inches (16.5 cm) long. The wide end is called the head while the narrower end is called the tail, the mid-part is called the body.

It is said that the pancreas was described first by Herophilus of Chalcedon in about 300 B.C. and the organ was named by Rufus of Ephesus in about 100 A.D. However, it is an established fact that the word pancreas had been used by Aristotle (384-322B.C.) before Herophilus.

In Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, there is a line saying “another to the so-called pancreas”. It is considered that the words “so-called pancreas” imply that the word pancreas had been popular at the time of Aristotle, but it had not been authorized yet as an anatomical term. However, the word pancreas presumably has been accepted as an anatomical term since Herophilus.

The Islets of Langerhans was discovered in 1869 by an anatomist named Paul Langerhans. He identified the keys cells in the pancreas which produce the main substance that controls glucose levels in the body.

The Islets of Langerhans contain Beta cells, which synthesize (make) the insulin. Approximately 1 to 3 million Islets of Langerhans make up the endocrine part of the pancreas (mainly the exocrine gland), representing just one fiftieth of the pancreas’ total mass.

The discovery of a role for the pancreas in Diabetes is generally ascribed to Joseph von Mering and Oskar Minkowski, who in 1889 found that dogs whose pancreas was removed developed all the signs and symptoms of Diabetes and died shortly afterwards.

In 1910, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Schafer suggested that people with Diabetes were deficient in a single chemical that was normally produced by the pancreas, he proposed calling this substance insulin, from the Latin insula, meaning island, in reference to the insulin-producing islets of Langerhans in the pancreas.

The endocrine role of the pancreas in metabolism, and indeed the existence of insulin, was further clarified in 1921, when Sir Frederick Grant Banting and Charles Herbert Best repeated the work of Von Mering and Minkowski, and went further to demonstrate they could reverse induced Diabetes in dogs by giving them an extract from the pancreatic islets of Langerhans of healthy dogs.

An effective treatment was only developed after the Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best first used insulin in 1921 and 1922.


Researched, collected and written by Zsolt Szemerszky

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