William Beaumont’s experiments on his patient Alexis St. Martin’s stomach in the 1820s are probably well known. St. Martin’s gunshot wound left him with a hole in the stomach that wouldn’t close. Moreover, it formed a fistula with the skin as the wound healed, which meant that he was left to live with a direct opening into his stomach.
Dr. Beaumont tried to heal the wound but when it wouldn’t, realised that he had a unique opportunity to study what happened to food inside the stomach. What followed was a decade of weird experiments that involved extracting the gastric juice, analysing half-digested food taken from the stomach, dipping small pieces of different kinds of food directly into the stomach and so on. Dr. Beaumont showed that the process of digestion was chemical in nature, and not just a mechanical breaking up of food.
Dr. Beaumont published his findings in a book titled Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion in 1838.
This is a story from the history of science that’s beautifully used in the class 5 NCERT Environmental Studies textbook to introduce students to the human digestive system. I vaguely knew the story earlier, but have got the opportunity to revisit it given that I regularly flip through the NCERT textbooks as part of work.
Recently, I read a bit more about the doctor’s experiments and discovered that there is a lot more that is fascinating, than just the experiments. There is a darker subplot to the story, that involves the human element of subjecting a person to such experiments.
St. Martin recovered from his injury and was capable of doing physical labour again. Dr. Beaumont got the illiterate man to sign a contract to perform domestic chores and become a guinea pig for the doctor’s experiments. After two years of discomfort at having foreign objects thrust into his stomach, St. Martin managed to escape to his native Canada in 1825. There, he got married and started living a normal life.
Dr. Beaumont did not give up, and tracked down St. Martin in 1829. He was successful in convincing St. Martin to go back with him, with the promise of housing and employment in return for allowing him to continue the experiments.
In 1833, St. Martin and his family left Dr. Beaumont for good, and they would never meet again. Though it was a path-breaking study, it remains a question of ethics why Dr. Beaumont never performed the simple procedure of sewing up the fistula. St. Martin lived to the end of his days with a hole in his stomach.