Leprosy and diabetes, though two very different conditions, may both result in severe loss of sensation in the feet, which are then a great risk of painless injury and ulceration. Seminal observations made by the late Dr Paul W. Brand, a surgeon working with leprosy patients in South India in the mid-20th century, resulted in the subsequent development of treatments to manage insensitive foot ulcers that are today entirely applicable to patients with diabetes. As a consequence of his research, the recognition of the relationship between insensitivity, repetitive pressures and skin breakdown has helped our understanding of the aetiopathogenesis of neuropathic foot lesions in diabetes: the development of the total contact cast and other casting devices to treat such lesions forms the basis of management of diabetic foot lesions with off-loading devices that are widely used in the 21st century in diabetic foot clinics around the world. Moreover, observations by Brand that the foot ‘heats up before it breaks down’ resulted in more recent research showing that self-skin temperature monitoring might help reduce the incidence of recurrent neuropathic foot ulcers in diabetes. In summary, Brand's understanding of ‘the gift of pain’ that, when lost, results in the late complications of diabetic neuropathy has guided the prevention, diagnosis and management of diabetic foot problems in the 21st century. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.