June 6, 1822: The Bizarre Way We Came to Understand Digestion

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A Brief History

On June 6, 1822, a Canadian fur trapper “voyageur” was accidentally shot in the stomach with a musket, leaving him with a hole that healed open, leading to extensive study of the human digestive tract.

Digging Deeper

A French-Canadian woodsman, St. Martin was 20 years old when the musket shot him at close range at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island. The local US Army doctor, surgeon Dr. William Beaumont attended to the terrible wound that was expected by all observers to prove fatal. Instead, the wound healed into a fistula, an open hole through St. Martin’s side into his stomach.

William Beaumont

For the first couple weeks after surgery and treatment, food eaten by the unfortunate St. Martin kept coming out of the fistula, but after that the food managed to stay inside where it belonged. St. Martin then began to experience normal digestive process with food going through the stomach to the intestines and passed normally as waste.

Dr. Beaumont seized the incredible opportunity to study human digestion, including by tying a piece of food to a string, placing it into St. Martin’s stomach, and then pulling the partly digested food out at various intervals to note the progress of digestion. Beaumont also removed samples of stomach acid from St. Martin to observe its effect on various foods in the lab.

Alexis St-Martin

St. Martin, illiterate man of the woods, was coaxed by Dr. Beaumont into signing a contract to act as the doctor’s servant and allow continued observation of his digestion, which the doctor studied for the next 11 years. St. Martin performed his chores with no particular sign of distress from his incredible wound.

St. Martin did complain of pain and discomfort from some of Beaumont’s experiments (sacks of food placed in the stomach, etc), but not so much that the experiments had to stop. When Beaumont’s experiments ended in 1833, the doctor went about writing up all his findings and published those findings in 1838, St. Martin having gone back to his native Quebec, Canada.

From Beaumont’s Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, 1833 (p. 27)

Beaumont, now in St. Louis, tried to talk St. Martin into coming to St. Louis to start more experimenting, but St. Martin declined. Alexis St. Martin died in 1880, his family refusing to bury St. Martin until his body had begun decomposing, so that researchers would not exhume his body and experiment on it! Beaumont, known as “The Father of Gastric Physiology” is famous for his work with St. Martin. Unfortunately, Beaumont died at age 67 in 1853 when he slipped on icy steps and fell.

Can you think of any other bizarre ways science discovered things about human bodies? If so, please share them with us.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Horsman, Reginald.  Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America’s First Great Medical Scientist (Missouri Biography Series).  University of Missouri, 1996.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.