Little Bits of History

Close Call

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 6, 2015
Engraving of Alexis Bidagan St. Martin's wound by Dr. Beaumont

Engraving of Alexis Bidagan St. Martin’s wound by Dr. Beaumont

June 6, 1822: Alexis Bidagan St. Martin is shot. He was a twenty year old Canadian who worked as a fur trapper and while at a trading post on Mackinac Island, he was shot at close range when a musket loaded with buck shot accidentally discharged. Although in excellent health overall, he was not expected to survive due to the severity of the injuries sustained. He was shot in the stomach and lost some of the muscles in his abdomen and a few ribs were also broken. He was treated by US Army surgeon William Beaumont. For the next 17 days, all food that St. Martin ate came out through the hole in his stomach. Finally, some of the food began to stay inside and his bowels began to function again. Even after healing, there remained a fistula or healed hole into St. Martin’s stomach.

The exact physiology of digestion was unknown at the time and Dr. Beaumont realized an opportunity to study the mechanisms involved in the process. He could and did lower foods tied to a string into the hole in St. Martin’s abdomen, allow the food to digest for various periods of time, and then pull them back out to study what had transpired. Beaumont continued to experiment on St. Martin until 1833, not out of goodwill or thankfulness on St. Martin’s part, but because Beaumont had coerced the illiterate Canadian to sign a contract who then became the servant of the doctor. St. Martin was able to carry out normal chores such as chopping wood and carrying burdens without ill effect and did not complain of pain or problems with his wound. Some of the experiments were a different story.

In 1825, Beaumont was transferred to Fort Niagara and St. Martin went with him there. The experiments continued and Beaumont was also able to extract a sample of gastric acid to analyze. Shortly after arriving, St. Martin left for Canada and Beaumont continued working with the gastric acid he had collected. This allowed him to see that foods were not just digested by mashing and squeezing of the stomach, but by the contents of the stomach as well. The process was seen as chemical rather than mechanical, a new finding. By 1828, as Beaumont was relocated again in Wisconsin, St. Martin was ordered to return as his handyman. A new series of experiments were conducted on temperature, exercise, and emotions as related to digestion.

Beaumont published his findings in 1833 in a book entitled Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion. At that time, the men parted ways with St. Martin going back to Canada and Beaumont heading to St. Louis. During the next twenty years, Beaumont tried several times to get St. Martin to return for more experiments, but could not induce him to do so. Beaumont slipped on ice and died from his injuries in 1853. St. Martin lived until 1880 and died in Quebec. His family kept his body until decomposition set in to keep any medical teams for exhuming the corpse for continued study or to perform an autopsy. Attempts to put his stomach in a museum were also thwarted.

A child, like your stomach, doesn’t need all you can afford to give it. – Frank A. Clark

To have a stomach and lack meat, to have meat and lack a stomach, to lie in bed and cannot rest, are great miseries. – William Camden

Never call a stomach a tummy without good reason. – William Strunk Jr.

Everyone tells me I’ve had such an interesting life, but sometimes I think it’s been nothing but stomach disturbances and self-concern. – Cary Grant

Also on this day: Not the Village People – In 1844, the YMCA was founded.
Novarupta – In 1912, the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century began.
Camden, New Jersey – In 1933, the first drive-in theater opened.
Maxwell Got Smart – In 1925, Maxwell Motor Company reorganized.
Whipping Through the Windy City – In 1892, the ‘L’ trains of Chicago began service.

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