Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Something to Digest: The Strange Partnership of William Beaumont and Alexis and St. Martin

William Beaumont’s medical training consisted of an apprenticeship of observation more than book learning. The son of a Connecticut farmer and Revolutionary War veteran, Beaumont left home at the age of 22 to embark on his training and career. After receiving a medical license in Vermont, he eventually signed up to be a surgeon’s mate in the United States Army. He served during the War of 1812 before he went into private practice for a few years before returning to the military and being assigned to Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in 1821.

William Beaumont, by Tom Jones - NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8436050
In 1822, French-Canadian voyageur, Alexis St. Martin, was visiting the post of the American Fur Trading Company on the island. He was accidentally shot at close range by a shot gun. The pellets penetrated his abdomen doing damage to his stomach and his ribs. Beaumont was summoned to treat him, though St. Martin wasn’t expected to survive. Still, the surgeon committed to the young man’s care, taking time to followthrough and check on him. 

St. Martin did survive, but the wound didn’t close. Instead, the open outer skin of the wound adhered to the layer underneath creating a permanent opening to the stomach called a gastric fistula. When he ate, food fell right through the hole in his side unless he kept a compress over it. He could no longer work for the fur trading company and the local authorities wanted to send him back to the Quebec area. Dr. Beaumont feared he wasn’t strong enough for the trip and offered to take his patient in. He hired St. Martin to be his servant.

By Frances Anne Hopkins - http://www.litterature-quebecoise.org/colonie2.htm [dead link], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2139872
In 1825 St. Martin agreed to allow Beaumont access to perform experiments on his open stomach. Pieces of food on a silk string were dipped into the gastric juices while the doctor observed how he digested the food. St. Martin went with Dr. Beaumont to where he was stationed at Niagara Falls and Washington, D.C. St. Martin eventually married and had several children. When he received word that one had passed away, in 1831, St. Martine wanted to return to Canada to be with his family. He returned with his family to Beaumont where he was stationed in Wisconsin. 

A young Alexis St. Martin By Jesse Shire Myer - A book, Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont ..., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2983496

Beaumont wanted to bring St. Martin with him to St. Louis, but he was determined to return to Canada with his family. The research finally ended in 1833, when they parted ways.

Beaumont’s research culminated in a 280-page book covering the physiology of digestion, even the effect that mental disturbances have on gastric juices! It was truly groundbreaking research at the time. 

Fort Mackinac
By Drdpw - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26978253
Though the doctor sent letters to St. Martin to try and convince him to return for more research, the former fur trader wouldn’t consent unless he could bring his whole family with him and receive an agreeable amount of compensation. Beaumont lived the rest of his life out in St. Louis in private practice as a doctor of some renown. He died at the age of 68 in 1853 from a closed head injury after slipping on icy steps. 

Elderly Alexis St. Martin with open wound.
By Jesse Shire Myer - A book, Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont ..., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2982466

While St. Martin was occasionally taken to medical facilities for show, St. Martin lived, mostly in poverty, until 1880 when he died. His family made sure that his body had begun decomposing and buried him in a secret grave to keep curious researchers from performing illegal autopsies on his corpse.

Dr. William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin made an interesting pair, dependent on one another for a time. While they may not have developed a close friendship due to class and personality differences, their strange partnership opened a window on human digestion to the medical community as never done before.

Kathleen Rouser is the multi-published author of the 2017 Bookvana Award winner, Rumors and Promises, her first novel about the people of fictional Stone Creek, Michigan, and its sequel, Secrets and Wishes. She is a longtime member in good standing of American Christian Fiction Writers. Kathleen wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She longs to create characters who resonate with readers and realize the need for a transforming Savior in their everyday lives. She lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of thirty-some years, and the sassy tail-less cat who found a home in their empty nest. Connect with Kathleen on her website at kathleenrouser.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathleenerouser/, and on Twitter @KathleenRouser.

The Last Memory in The Great Lakes Lighthouse Brides Collection

Lighthouses have long been the symbol of salvation, warning sailors 
away from dangerous rocks and shallow waters.

Along the Great Lakes, America’s inland seas, lighthouses played a vital role in the growth of the nation. They shepherded settlers traveling by water to places that had no roads. These beacons of light required constant tending even in remote and often dangerous places. Brave men and women battled the elements and loneliness to keep the lights shining. Their sacrifice kept goods and immigrants moving. Seven romances set between 1883 and 1911 bring hope to these lonely keepers and love to weary hearts.

The Last Memory
 by Kathleen Rouser
1899—Mackinac Point Lighthouse
Natalie Brooks loses her past to amnesia, and Cal Waterson, the lighthouse keeper who rescues her, didn’t bargain on risking his heart—when her past might change everything.


  1. What an interesting post! I wonder why it wasn't possible to close the wound with surgery. Maybe it would be nowadays!

  2. Excellent question, Connie! While this was discussed in
    some of the articles I read, nobody seems to know the
    answer. There is some discussion of medical ethics back
    then. An educated, higher class doctor's opinion
    would have been considered more important than an
    uneducated patient's rights at the time. So
    whether Dr. Beaumont didn't try to close it
    because he wanted to continue his experiments,
    or (just a thought) they didn't have the ability
    to separate the layers of outer skin and stomach
    muscle successfully without risking infection,
    is anybody's guess. Either way, St. Martin still
    managed to outlive Beaumont!

  3. Kathleen, thank you for sharing this unknown medical history of two different individuals. The early studies in medicine probably had more impact on today's research than we stop to consider. Blessings.

    1. You're welcome, Marilyn. In a day when they didn't yet have x-rays or any other
      way to look inside the live human body, I'm sure Beaumont's research did
      have great impact and laid the groundwork for later research. Good point!

  4. Very interesting! I took a trip to Mackinac years ago as a chaperone to my son’s sixth grade class. I remember hiking many steps to the Fort and learning about the Doctor and his observations of the open stomach.

    1. I meant to add, thank you for sharing, Paula. :)

  5. I remember first visiting Mackinac as a child and learning about Beaumont too.
    It made an impression on me. In the Detroit area, there is a whole hospital
    system named after Dr. Beaumont and now there is a medical school named after
    him at one of the local universities. His name lives on!