Today, a story about a hole in a stomach -- and
opportunity. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Fort Mackinac, June 22,
1822, in what is now Michigan: A nineteen-year-old
French Canadian trapper, Alexis St. Martin, stands
on the threshold of history. Actually, he stands in
the American Fur Company store. Suddenly, a shotgun
goes off by accident.
The gun was 2½ feet from St. Martin's chest.
Duck shot shredded his ribs, lungs, diaphragm, and
stomach. The post surgeon, William Beaumont, came
on the double. Beaumont sifted out bone fragments,
patches of burned clothing -- shredded tissue.
Finally he gave the ruined St. Martin 36 hours to
But St. Martin rallied. For two years Beaumont
tended him. Then he hired him as a handyman. The
ghastly wound healed. Well, it almost healed. The
breach in St. Martin wouldn't quite close.
Skin healed around a patch of exposed stomach wall.
The torn stomach, in turn, formed a kind of mouth.
It healed into a valve that opened when St. Martin
ate too much.
Beaumont was no backwoods sawbones. He knew the
European medical literature. He'd read the heated
debate going on about digestion. Doctors couldn't
tell if the stomach ground food up, cooked it, or
reduced it chemically. One English doctor had
Some ... will have it that the stomach is a
mill, others that it is a fermenting vat, others
again that it is a stew pot.
In 1825 Beaumont realized he'd been
handed a remarkable opportunity. He made a deal with
St. Martin and began a series of observations. He
peered into St. Martin to see what his stomach was
doing after different meals. He subjected samples of
gastric juices to chemical analysis.
Early in 1826, St. Martin wearied of the game and
walked off. A few years later, Beaumont tracked him
down in Canada. St. Martin -- now married and the
father of two -- knew his value to Beaumont. He
dickered for price. Finally, in 1829, Beaumont
rehired him, and his family, so he could continue
Beaumont published a book in 1833:
Experiments and Observations on the Gastric
Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. It
was clean, accurate scientific work. (Click
here for a page from the
book showing the wound.) Beaumont set the basis for
what we know about digestion today. The book had a
powerful influence back in the medical centers of
And St. Martin? Well, he lived to 83. Long after
Beaumont died, he was still showing himself at
medical schools for pay.
So maybe this is a story about opportunism. After
all, both Beaumont and St. Martin grasped the
occasion in different ways. But Beaumont had the
wit to see opportunity -- to use it for the general
good. And if you've ever been cured of a stomach
problem -- you should be very thankful he did.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Beaumont, W., Experiments and Observations on
the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of
Digestion. (Sir William Osler, ed.,) New York:
Dover Publications, Inc., 1959.
Rosen, G., The Reception of William
Beaumont's Discovery in Europe. New York:
Schuman's, 1942. (Forward by John F. Fulton, who
credits Beaumont with having influenced European
science as profoundly as Ben Franklin had.)
White, J.I., American Vignettes: A Collection
of Footnotes to History. Convent Station,
N.J.: Travel Vision, 1976, pp. 24-26.
I'm grateful to Laura Douglas, Gammage's Bookstore
in Houston, for calling my attention to Beaumont's
Photo by John Lienhard of a drawing
in the Cushing-Whitney Medical Library, Yale
Alexis St. Martin
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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