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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Voyageur with the Hole in his Side

When a shotgun blew a fist-sized hole in Alexis St. Martin's side on June 6, 1822, military physician William Beaumont was astonished that the young fur trader didn't simply die on the spot. Instead, he recovered, though with a permanent opening through his muscle wall into his stomach that required bandaging for the rest of his life. Unable to support himself as a voyageur, in April 1823 St. Martin was hired by Beaumont as a live-in handyman to chop wood and do odd jobs -- one of which was to open up the window in his side for scientific experiments whenever the good doctor commanded.

Testing Everything (even oysters)

Through that window Dr. Beaumont siphoned out gastric juices and inserted vegetables. He dangled bits of beef on a string, pulling them out after one, two, and three hours to observe the rate of digestion. Once, he put in 12 raw oysters.

For ten years Dr. Beaumont observed human digestion through the aperture in St. Martin's side. In 1833 he published a small book called Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion that became a cornerstone of internal medicine. You can read it here, thanks to the Digital Public Library of America.

As this article reveals, Beaumont's experiments made the two of them famous, because until then no one had been able to figure out what happened to food after we swallowed it.

Later Life (and peculiar burial)

Beaumont eventually left the military and moved to St. Louis, where he had a successful private practice as a physician.

St. Martin lived 58 years with the hole in his side, marrying, fathering several children, and in his eighties becoming "very much addicted to drink," according to his lawyer. He died at age 86 on June 24, 1880, in St. Thomas de Joliette, Canada.

His family, thinking he had suffered enough indignities in the name of science, let his body rot in the sun and then buried it in an unmarked grave so no further experiments could be performed on it.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on October 8, 2013
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