Notes from the John Martin Rare Book Room: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

 William Beaumont (1785-1853).  Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, Plattsburgh, 1833.

When U.S. Army Surgeon William Beaumont saw the gaping hole in Alex St. Martin’s side, he had every reason to believe the wound was fatal.  The 28 year old Canadian voyager was accidentally shot in the stomach by a musket ball at close range.  In 1822, on the isolated fur-trading post in Mackinac Island he was given little chance to survive but Beaumont dressed the wound as best he could and his patient held on despite the fist sized fistula that remained on his left side.  “I saw him in twenty-five or thirty minutes after the accident occurred, and on examination, found a portion of the lung, as large as a Turkey’s egg, protruding through the external wound, lacerated and burnt; and immediately below this, another protrusion, which, on further examination, proved to be a portion of the stomach, lacerated through all its coats, and pouring out the food he had taken for his breakfast…”  After 17 days, St. Martin’s digestion was partially restored but the fistula became permanent.  Three years later, now stationed in Fort Niagara with St. Martin employed as his handyman, Beaumont seized upon the opportunity to observe the digestive process as no one had before and, with his patient’s permission,  performed various experiments within this living gastric laboratory.
     Over the next eleven years, Beaumont carried out an assortment of tests, including dangling various kind of foodstuffs  in the digestive cavity and pulling them out at intervals to observe and record the results.  In 1833, Beaumont published his research in his highly regarded, “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion,” now a medical classic and a book that marks the beginning of the field of gastric physiology.  St. Martin outlived Beaumont by 27 years, the latter dying from a fall in 1853 and the former dying at the age of 86 in Quebec of “natural causes.”  The location of his grave was not revealed until 1962 at which time a plaque was placed nearby, briefly describing his contribution to medical science.