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The Voyageur with the Hole in his Side | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Voyageur with the Hole in his Side

A Bizarre Story of Scientific Progress

The Voyageur with the Hole in his Side | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeAlexis St. Martin at the age of 81 years.

Alexis St. Martin at the age of 81 years.

St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach and lived for over 50 years, to the age of 86, with a hole in his abdomen open all the way to his stomach. Date unknown. View the original source document: WHI 45657

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 worker didn't simply die on the spot.

Scientific Experimentation

Instead, he recovered — though a permanent opening through his muscle wall and into his stomach that required bandaging for the rest of his life remained. 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 abdomen for scientific experiments whenever the good doctor commanded.

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.

Contribution to Medicine

EnlargePortrait of Dr. William Beautmont

Dr. William Beaumont, ca. 1830

Portrait of Dr. William Beaumont, who conducted some of his famous experiments on human digestion while posted at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien in 1830. Prior to his assignment at Fort Crawford Beaumont had also been posted at Fort Howard. The portrait appeared in volume 4 of the "Wisconsin Magazine of History" in 1920 to illustrate an article by Deborah Beaumont Martin. The portrait was then owned by May Beaumont of Green Bay. View the original source document: WHI 91788

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," which became a cornerstone of internal medicine. Beaumont's article made the two of men famous, because until then no one had been able to figure out what happened to food after it was swallowed.

Beaumont eventually left the military and moved to St. Louis, where he had a successful private practice. St. Martin lived 58 years with the hole in his side. He marryed and fathered several children. In his eighties he became "very much addicted to drink," according to his lawyer. St. Martin 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.

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