William Beaumont Biography (1785-1853)


Beaumont, Connecticut-born and the son of a farmer, worked briefly as a school teacher, then studied medicine at St. Albans, Vermont. He received a license to practice medicine in time to serve as an assistant army surgeon during the War of 1812. Although he left the army in 1815 to start a medical practicein Plattsburgh, New York, he returned in 1820 and remained an Army surgeon,serving at various posts, until 1839.

It was at one of those army posts, Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan, that Beaumont met the patient that was to make both of them famous. The patient wasa 19-year-old French Canadian trapper, Alexis St. Martin, who was accidentally shot on June 6, 1822, while visiting the Mackinac branch of the American Fur Company. The bullet wound tore a deep chunk out of the left side of St. Martin's lower chest; and, although Beaumont was sent for immediately, everyoneassumed that the young man would never survive. Miraculously, he did--although his wound needed to be rebandaged daily for a year--and in time St. Martinrecovered virtually all his strength. (He lived to be 82, in fact.) However,St. Martin's bullet hole never fully closed. An inch-wide opening (called afistula ) remained through which Beaumont could put his finger all the way into the stomach.

About a year later, St. Martin needed a cathartic of rhubarb and sulphur andBeaumont decided to try administering the medicine through the hole in his patient's stomach. To the surgeon's surprise, the cathartic seemed to work exactly as it would have if it had been administered orally--and Beaumont promptly began planning other experiments as well.

Beaumont started by taking small chunks of food, tying them to a string, andinserting them directly into St. Martin's stomach. At varying intervals, he then pulled the food out--and was therefore able to observe, first hand, the results of digestion, hour by hour. Later, by using a hand lens, Beaumont began peering into his patient's stomach, and could actually see how the human stomach behaved at various stages of digestion and under varying circumstances.He was also able to extract and analyze samples of digestive juice.

Over the next few years, Beaumont conducted well over two hundred carefully detailed experiments and, in 1833, published his findings as Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. Thebook provided invaluable information on the digestive process and also suggested to other scientists (including Claude Bernard) that artificial fistulas might be a practical way to learn more about the body. A year after Beaumont'swork was published, St. Martin, probably tiring of the scrutiny Beaumont hadsubjected him to, refused to cooperate with further studies and returned toCanada.

Although Beaumont resigned from the army in 1840, went into private practicein St. Louis, Missouri, and stayed out of the laboratory, his one classic work earned him lasting fame as one of America's more remarkable pioneer researchers.

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