William Beaumont’s Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion (Plattsburgh: F.P. Allen, 1833) marks a breakthrough in the understanding of digestive physiology. Some of Beaumont’s revelations include the fact that digestion is primarily chemical rather than physical, and the effects of factors such as spices, temperature, exercise, and emotions. Beaumont’s attitude toward and treatment of his subject also raises ethical issues in human experimentation.
William Beaumont (1785-1853) was born in Connecticut. He apprenticed in medicine in Vermont, and served as an army surgeon’s mate during the War of 1812. He briefly practiced medicine in Plattsburgh, New York after the war. He reenlisted in 1819 and was posted as surgeon to Fort Mackinac, in the Michigan Territory.
At the American Fur Company store near Fort Mackinac In 1822, a young French-Canadian trapper named Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot at close range by a musket loaded with duck shot. Beaumont was summoned. St. Martin’s injuries were serious, and he was not expected to survive. Over the next two years, St. Martin recovered from his injuries, but despite Beaumont’s best efforts, the hole in his side did not close. According to Beaumont, St. Martin was healed by early 1824, but “the aperture remained; and the surrounding wound was firmly cicatrized to its edges,” leaving a hole into his stomach (a gastric fistula).
The hole in his side left the trapper unable to continue his profession. Beaumont contracted the illiterate young man to work as his servant, doing menial chores. When Beaumont was transferred to Fort Niagara in 1825, St. Martin accompanied him, and his duties expanded to include serving as the subject of experiments, many of them painful. A month later, St. Martin returned to Canada. In 1829, Beaumont was stationed in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. St. Martin, with wife and children in tow, returned to work for him, and research resumed until St. Martin left in 1831. In 1832, Beaumont took St. Martin to Washington, D.C., and continued experimenting until spring of 1833, when St. Martin left for Quebec ,and Beaumont went to Plattsburgh to prepare his book for publication.
Beaumont was posted to St. Louis, Missouri in 1834. He wanted St. Martin to join him there, but was unwilling to bring St. Martin’s family. Five years later, Beaumont resigned from the Army to avoid transfer to Florida, and he practiced medicine in St. Louis until 1853, when he died of a head injury from slipping on the icy steps of a patient’s home. St. Martin lived until 1880. When he died at the age of 86, his family left his body out to rot, then buried it in an unmarked grave to prevent researchers from retrieving him for further study.
The Health Sciences Library owns two copies of the first edition of Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice. Both were rebound by the library’s former director, Dr. Frank B. Rogers. One copy once belonged to the University of Pennsylvania Library.
Rare materials are available to individuals or groups by appointment on Wednesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, or at other times by arrangement. To schedule an appointment, contact Emily Epstein, firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-724-2119.