Here’s an unbelievable but true story from The Old Farmer’s Almanac archives about a gruesome medical discovery. On June 6, 1822, Dr. William Beaumont’s infirmary at Fort Mackinac, Michigan, was visited by a French fur trapper, Alexis St. Martin, who had been shot straight through the stomach by a companion’s shotgun.
Back in the 1800s, Mackinac Island was bustling with fur traders. The doector, William Beaumont, was an Army surgeon stationed at Fort Mackinac. He had distinguished himself as a capable and talented surgeon during the War of 1812 as well as later in private practice, immediately set upon the young trapper.
The buckshot had accidentally struck the trapper’s abdomen less than three feet away at an oblique angle, literally blowing a hole in his stomach several inches in circumference! His breakfast is literally spilling out of his stomach and treatment looks futile. But Dr. Beaumont dressed St. Martin’s wound and estimated that the trapper would live no more than 36 hours.
Fortunately, due to his skill as a surgeon and the young man’s incredible strength, exactly one year later to the day, the doctor was able to report the wound fully healed, except for a small hole in St. Martin’s stomach. The hole had not closed despite all attempts and the tissue around the opening had created what is called a “gastric fistula,” a permanent opening. The hole had to remain covered or his food would leak out.
Since he had the inclination and drive of a scientist, Dr. Beaumont realized at once what tremendous potential St. Martin offered him as a way to test the action of the human stomach. At this time, very little was known of the function of this important organ, and Dr. Beaumont determined to use St. Martin’s unusual wound to learn more about it.
May 1825 marked the beginning of Dr. Beaumont’s now famous experiments on St. Martin, but it also records the start of a stormy relationship between the scientist and his subject.
A Doctor’s Gruesome Experiment
Forced to lie on his side for extended periods, the trapper had to ensure experiments as Dr. Beaumont tied string on different foods and suspended them in his stomach. He would tangle meat in the hole and then pull it out. He could look inside a living human stomach! Apparently, this was not the first-ever gastric fistula but no one had ever experimented live on a man with a hole in hit stomach!
The trapper endured the experiments for only 2 months before fleeing to Canada. Unconvinced of the importance of Beaumont’s experiments, St. Martin refused to return.
Despite his injury, the trapper went on to live a normal life: He married and started a family. Oddly enough, it was his family that drove St. Martin to return to Dr. Beaumont 4 years later. He needed the means to support them, and Dr. Beaumont, then stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, offered to pay St. Martin to be his guinea pig.
In all, Dr. Beaumont performed some 56 different experiments on St. Martin’s see-through stomach. His book Beaumont’s Experiments was published in 1833 and still stands as one of the authoritative works on the nature of digestion. He proved that digest was not mechanical (a grinding in the stomach) but chemical (a product of gastric juice composed largely of hydrochloric acid).
In 1834, Alexis St. Martin felt that he had endured enough as an object of scientific interest and returned to work in the Canadian woods, where he lived to be 80 years old.
Credit: State of Michigan