William Beaumont (1785 – 1853)
Ever wondered how the human digestive system works? For me, it is sufficient to know that if I put some food in my mouth, masticate it and swallow then somehow my stomach will extract what it needs from it and pass the rest out to be excreted. In the days before X-rays and scanners, the ability to satisfy this desire to know the inner workings of the digestive system was limited.
But for surgeon William Beaumont, now regarded as the father of gastric physiology, fate handed him on a plate a perfect opportunity to understand the workings of the human gut. On 6th June 1822 Alexis St Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach by a discharge from a shotgun and despite the ministrations of the good doctor, the fistula or hole to you and I would not heal completely. The unfortunate St Martin was deemed unfit to resume his previous duties and was employed by Beaumont as a handyman.
Sometime in August 1825 Beaumont began to conduct a series of bizarre experiments into digestion, using the stomach and unhealed fistula of his servant. He would tie a bit of food with some string and poke it through the gaping hole in his stomach and then after a few hours fish it back out to observe how well the morsel had been digested. The doctor also extracted a sample of gastric acid from St Martin’s stomach for analysis.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in September 1825 St Martin ran away, presumably without a piece of string attached to his stomach, fleeing to Canada. But skipping countries was not sufficient to enable St Martin to elude the strange attentions of Beaumont. The handyman was arrested and brought back to the doctor. Unconcerned by the elopement Beaumont continued to experiment on St Martin, this time concentrating on the gastric acid that he was able to extract from the unfortunate’s stomach. The doctor noticed that when he put food into the phial of gastric acid, it was digested.
This was a light bulb moment for Beaumont. He realised that digestion wasn’t mechanical, just the result of muscles in the stomach pounding, squeezing and mashing the food. Rather it was a chemical process in which the acids in our guts worked on the food to extract the nutrients and other forms of goodness the body required.
Revolutionary as this discovery was, Beaumont did not stop there. In early 1831 he carried out another set of experiments on St Martin’s stomach. These ranged from observations of the way the stomach digested food to the effects that temperature, exercise and emotions had on the digestive process. In 1833 Beaumont published his findings in the nattily entitled Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. It made his name.
Shortly afterwards Beaumont and St Martin parted company, the latter going back to his home in Quebec, reckoning this was far enough away from the mad scientist. Unbelievably, Beaumont made several attempts to lure him back but St Martin thought enough was enough. Can’t blame him. You wonder why he subjected himself to Beaumont’s gruesome experiments. Perhaps he felt he owed the doctor a debt of gratitude for saving his life.
Beaumont died in 1853 from injuries sustained when he hit his head slipping on some icy steps whilst visiting a patient. St Martin outlived him by 27 years, having spent some time touring around the States in the company of a charlatan called Bunting as a sort of circus freak. When he died, his family left his body to decompose in the sun and buried it in an unmarked grave, eight feet deep with rocks in the casket, so that the curious would not exhume it.
The thirst for knowledge reveals some strange tales, to be sure.