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Dr. William Beaumont

We thought we should save this for October since this story has a certain creepy-crawly element to it, but yesterday back in 1833 the book that outlined said creepy-crawly research was published, so we wanted to keep this timely. That and it was just too good to sit on for another few weeks.

In Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, Dr. William Beaumont — the “Father of Gastric Physiology” — outlined the results of years’ worth of stomach experiments performed on Alexis St. Martin. St. Martin worked for the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island, and he  suffered a musket wound that injured his ribs and stomach. He was brought to see Dr. Beaumont, an Army doctor at Fort Mackinac. He treated St. Martin, but did not believe he would survive. He miraculously lived BUT — and here comes the creepy-crawly part — he had a permanent hole in his stomach. Smarty medical types call this a fistula.

Poor St. Martin couldn’t work for the American Fur Company anymore, so Dr. Beaumont (who has a high school and a street in St. Louis named after him) hired him as a handyman. Here’s the other creepy-crawly (but scientifically justified!) part of the story: It was during this period that Dr. Beaumont performed experiments on St. Martin’s stomach and the food therein.

This is *exactly* what you think it is: one of Beaumont’s drawings of St. Martin’s stomach fistula.

Beaumont would drop a piece of food into his stomach and check it later to see the how digestion had progressed, or sometimes he would remove stomach acid and let it get to work on a sample of food in a cup. What did he learn? Our stomach chemicals do the bulk of the work of digesting our food, more so than the physical contractions of the stomach.

Beaumont ended up in St. Louis in 1835 and served as a doctor at Jefferson Barracks. By this time, he had parted ways with St. Martin. Though he declined repeated offers, Dr. Beaumont had always encouraged him and his family to move to St. Louis. Still, throughout his life, St. Martin would visit Dr. Beaumont for further experimentation.

If you can handle it, the first chapter of the book is fascinating, and it talks about the initial wound, Beaumont’s attempts to close the hole, and St. Martin’s life (which was surprisingly normal). Take a look — if you dare — here.

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