William Beaumont:America's First Great
from Forgotten Missourians Who Made History
Brett Dufur and Jim Borwick.
© 1996. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved
No one had the stomach to test theories
concerning human digestion until June 6, 1822, when Dr. William Beaumont
was summoned from his crude frontier hospital at Fort Mackinac in the
Michigan Territory. Arriving at the American Fur Company store, Beaumont
found Alexis St. Martin, a Canadian trapper, with a shotgun hole blasted
in his chest.
"I considered any attempt to save his life entirely useless,"
Beaumont wrote. However, not only did St. Martin survive the shotgun
wound, he and Beaumont ended up conducting a series of medical experiments
that made Beaumont's reputation as a pioneering physiologist.
Before then, two ideas had dominated debates over the stomach's role in
human digestion. One theory pictured the stomach as a kind of fermenting
vat, a cauldron of chemicals stoked by heat. A second theory suggested
that digestion occurred mechanically 3/4 by grinding. Neither school had
produced direct evidence to prove its claims, though not for lack of
To test their beliefs, proponents of the chemical view experimented on
buzzards, sheep, dogs, cats and even themselves. One Italian researcher,
Lazzaro Spallanzani, fished for his own gastric juice by swallowing
sponges tied to strings. Spallanzani was able to demonstrate that gastric
juice would dissolve food outside his stomach. The chance to see if
Spallanzani's findings held true within the stomach fell to Beaumont, an
ambitious country doctor serving as a U.S. Army post surgeon on a remote
island bustling with fur trade.
According to Reginald Horsman in Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont,
America's First Great Medical Scientist, St. Martin's external wound
healed. But despite repeated attempts to close it, a hole remained in his
stomach wall. The experiments began at noon on August 1, 1825. Beaumont
baited a string with food and lowered it into St. Martin's stomach cavity.
Lunch for St. Martin that day consisted of seasoned a la mode beef, raw
salted lean beef, raw salted fat pork, raw lean fresh beef, boiled corn
beef, stale bread and raw cabbage. Beaumont removed the food at one, two
and three o'clock to observe the rate of digestion.
The experiment ended at five o'clock. St. Martin felt weak, his stomach
and head ached; the next day, he suffered indigestion. On August 7, a week
after his first try, Beaumont siphoned an ounce of gastric juice from St.
Martin's stomach. He placed the juice in a vial with a piece of corned
beef as large as his pinky, corked the top, submerged the vial in a
saucepan of water, heated it to 100 F and parked the vial in a sand bath
to keep its temperature constant. At the same time, he slid a similar slab
of corned beef into St. Martin's stomach, regularly removing it for
observation. The experiment, repeated several times with different foods,
provided the first physical evidence that simulated, test tube digestion
closely resembled internal digestion, the only difference being that it
was slower and less complete. Beaumont's experiments provided the first
physical evidence that simulated, test tube digestion closely resembles
internal digestion and did more to shed light on the role of gastric juice
in human digestion than the years of theorizing that preceded it.
In late 1825 Beaumont grudgingly suspended his experiments after St.
Martin left Mackinac for Canada. Beaumont had hired the vulnerable,
poverty-stricken trapper as a live-in handyman, an arrangement that
provided St. Martin with an income and enabled Beaumont to experiment
while closely monitoring his patient's condition. Understandably, St.
Martin wished to resume his normal existence.
The experiments tested St. Martin's patience. Frequently, Beaumont
removed food from the trapper's stomach during digestion to observe
changes. St. Martin's suffering underwrote Beaumont's progress. The
doctor's experiments at Prairie Du Chien helped confirm that digestion was
a chemical process, in which gastric juice acted as a solvent.
Four years and many experiments later, Beaumont published the results
of his 283 tests on St. Martin in The Physiology of Digestion with
Experiments on the Gastric Juice, published in 1833. In it, Beaumont
concluded that digestion is a chemical process and that gastric juice acts
as a solvent.
His work won wide acceptance. Generally ignorant of the debates raging
in Europe over the physiology of human digestion and aligned with no
school or ideology, Beaumont was viewed as an objective observer and an
honest reporter. His book - self-published and dedicated to his mentor,
Surgeon General Lovell - eventually sold more than 3,000 copies in its
first edition. It became a trusted source for medical students and opened
new avenues of research.
Beaumont's peripatetic military career kept him moving. From 1825
through 1828 he served at Fort Niagara, Fort Howard and Fort Crawford. To
continue his digestive experiments on St. Martin, Beaumont signed a
contract with his subject and paid him an advance. But St. Martin
disappeared into Canada, a foreign jurisdiction. Beaumont, writing Lovell,
expressed the belief that St. Martin would eventually spend his advance
and be "willing to recant his villainous obstinacy and ugliness, and
then I shall be able to regain possession of him again, I have no
Meanwhile, Beaumont also attempted to persuade Congress to reimburse
him the cost of his past experiments on St. Martin and to finance his
future research. His proposal was shelved. In 1834, the army assigned
Beaumont to Jefferson Barracks, ten miles from St. Louis, and then granted
Beaumont's request to be stationed at the arsenal in St. Louis, which
allowed him to establish a private practice. St. Louis was growing rapidly
(its population doubled then quadrupled in the 1830s and 1840s) kept
Beaumont so busy in his lucrative private practice that he attempted to
reject an offer in 1836 to become chair of surgery at St. Louis
University's medical department. Though Beaumont made some desultory
attempts to bring St. Martin to St. Louis to renew his experiments, his
plans fell through.
Beaumont's thriving St. Louis practice was interrupted by ugly
controversies. In 1840, Beaumont's medical treatment of Andrew Jackson
Davis, owner of the Missouri Argus, brought him grief. Davis, was attacked
and caned on the head by William P. Darnes, a prominent local politician
who had received unflattering coverage in the Argus. The assault fractured
Davis's skull. A week after Beaumont operated, the patient died and Darnes
was charged with third-degree manslaughter.
In Darnes's defense, his lawyer argued that it was not his client's
caning but Beaumont's operation that had caused Davis's death. The defense
called as expert witnesses several St. Louis physicians who criticized
Beaumont's medical judgment, and the jury convicted Darnes on a lesser
charge-fourth-degree manslaughter. Soon after the trial, Beaumont was
elected president of the St. Louis Medical Society. After his term
expired, he took no further part in the society's activities.
Embittered and increasingly deaf, Beaumont withdrew into the company of
family and friends. He bought a big white frame house on 40 acres of land
about a mile from the center of St. Louis, now bounded by Jefferson Avenue
and Beaumont Street. After falling and hitting his head on ice-covered
steps in March 1853, he died the following month from complications and
was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.
Since his death, doctors have paid tribute to Beaumont's work. In 1933,
a prominent physiologist summed up Beaumont's contributions, writing:
"[O]ne truly does not know gastric physiology and pathology as one
should until Beaumont has been read critically and in toto." Sir
William Osler described Beaumont as "the pioneer physiologist of this
country," and Beaumont's biographer, Reginald Horsman, called him
"America's first great medical scientist."