Life of U.S. Dr. William Beaumont

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The Beaumonts came from England to the American colonies in 1635. Dr. Beaumont's father and paternal uncles all fought in the Revolutionary War. After the war, his father Samuel Beaumont became a farmer in Lebanon, Connecticut; two of William's uncles — William and Daniel Beaumont — moved to the Champlain area in New York, close to the Canadian border.

Dr. Beaumont's parents, Samuel and Lucretia, had a total of nine children; William was their second child, born in Lebanon, Connecticut on November 21, 1785. Lebanon was then the sixth largest town in Connecticut. As a boy, William's schoolmaster (and role model?) was Silas Fuller, who himself became a medical doctor in Lebanon and served in the War of 1812 as a regiment surgeon. In 1807, William left Lebanon for Champlain, where he became the town's schoolmaster and served as secretary for the local debating society.


In early 1809, William began "reading" under Dr. Benjamin Moore of Champlain. (NOTE: There were few medical schools then in the U.S., so it was common for potential doctors to be trained by reading medical subjects under the direction of an established doctor, and then paying for an apprenticeship with a doctor.) In the spring of 1811, William began his apprenticeship with Dr. Benjamin Chandler and Dr. Truman Powell in St. Albans, Vermont; in June 1812, the Third Medical Society of Vermont approved William to practice "Physic and Surgery."


On September 13, 1812, at age 26, Dr. William Beaumont enlisted as a surgeon's mate in the U.S. Army, a position that paid $30 a month. He was assigned to the Sixth Infantry Regiment in Plattsburgh, New York. Soldiers sometimes slept outdoors without shelter, quite miserable during a wet and windy winter; hospitals were set up in buildings, barns, or even tents. Medically, it was common for the soldiers to come down with dysentery, pleurisy, pneumonia, sore throats, and rheumatism. In those days, typhus was treated with wine, opium, snakeroot, and mercury; for rheumatism pain, Beaumont prescribed opium, wood resin, and turpentine. Beaumont was proud of that fact that not one of his 200+ cases died.

Dr. William Beaumont, circa 1821
Dr. William Beaumont,
circa 1821

Dr. Beaumont saw his first "action" in the War of 1812 in April 1813, when the Sixth Regiment led the charge at York, the capital of Upper Canada. The British retreated while blowing up the main magazine; the explosion caused heavy casualties and injuries. Beaumont and the other surgeons were amputating arms and legs for two straight days; they also trephined fractured skulls (this meant using a cylindrical saw to remove bone, attempting to relieve pressure on the brain).

After the war ended, Beaumont left the Army and in June 1815 he began private practice in Plattsburgh, NY, where he met his future wife, Deborah Green Platt.

Dr. Beaumont re-entered the Army in December 1819, this time as a post surgeon. He was sent to Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, the second-largest of the Great Lakes. The post hospital was then in a converted storehouse that Beaumont described as "wholly unfit," "insupportably cold and smoky in winter" (when snow came into the wards) and open to "every shower in summer" (when patients' beds had to be moved to avoid being rained on). They had a shortage of medical supplies, and didn't even have a thermometer for months.

In August 1821, Beaumont took a leave and traveled to Plattsburgh, where he and Deborah were married. When they moved to Fort Mackinac, they brought with them Melancton Smith, the 11-year-old stepson of Deborah's sister Ann Green Smith. The boy's father was Colonel Melancton Smith of Plattsburgh, who had died in 1818; Colonel Smith met Dr. Beaumont during the War of 1812, when Smith commanded the fort where Beaumont was attached at the Battle of Plattsburgh in August 1814. Young Melancton Smith lived with the Beaumonts for several years, and eventually entered the Navy and became a rear admiral.


On June 6, 1822, in the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island, a French-Canadian voyageur named Alexis St. Martin was shot in the upper left abdomen; the musket wound was "more than the size of the palm of a man's hand," Beaumont wrote, and affected part of a lung, two ribs, and the stomach. Dr. Beaumont treated the wound, but he was repeatedly unsuccessful in fully closing the hole in St. Martin's stomach; for a while, the hole had to be covered to prevent food and drink from coming out. St. Martin was now unable to work as a voyageur, so in April 1823 Beaumont hired him as the family's live-in handyman chopping wood, mowing a field, etc. [NOTE: A voyageur's job was to paddle a canoe to pick up furs from Indian trappers to deliver to the fur company; some voyageurs sold furs directly as traders.]

DESCRIPTION OF WOUND: The hole in St. Martin's side was a permanent open gastric fistula, large enough that Beaumont could insert his entire forefinger into the stomach cavity.

wood cut of St. Martin's woundDiagram of Alexis St. Martin's wound (from Dr. Beaumont's book, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, 1833)
"This engraving represents the appearance of the aperture with the valve depressed.
A A A Edges of the aperture through the integuments and intercostals, on the inside and around which is the union of the lacerated edges of the perforated coats of the stomach with the intercostals and skin.
B The cavity of the stomach, when the valve is depresed.
C Valve, depressed within the cavity of the stomach.
E E E E Cicatrice of the original wound."

St. Martin "was accidentally wounded by a discharge from a musket. The contents of the weapon, consisting of powder and duck-shot,entered his left side from a distance of not more than a yard off. The charge was directed obliquely forward and inward, literally blowing off the integument and muscles for a space about the size of a man's hand, carrying away the anterior half of the 6th rib, fracturing the 5th rib, lacerating the lower portion of the lowest lobe of the left lung, and perforating the diaphragm and the stomach. The whole mass of the discharge together with fragments of clothing were driven into the muscles and cavity of the chest. When first seen by Dr. Beaumont about a half hour after the accident, a portion of the lung, as large as a turkey's egg was found protruding through the external wound. The protruding lung was lacerated and burnt. Immediately below this was another protrusion, which proved to be a portion of the stomach, lacerated through all its coats. Through an orifice, large enough to admit a fore-finger, oozed the remnants of thefood he had taken for breakfast. His injuries were dressed; extensive sloughing commenced, and the wound became considerably enlarged. Portions of the lung, cartilages, ribs, and of the ensiform process of the sternum came away. In a year from the time of the accident, the wound, with the exception of a fistulous aperture of the stomach and side, had completely cicatrized. This aperture was about 2 1/2 inches in circumference, and through it food and drink constantly extruded unless prevented by a tent-compress and bandage." [From Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle (Philadelphia, 1896)]

It was not until August 1, 1825 that Dr. Beaumont — now stationed at Fort Niagara — began his experiments with St. Martin, becoming the first person to observe human digestion as it occurs in the stomach. Beaumont tied quarter-ounce pieces of food to the end of a silk string and dangled the food through the hole into St. Martin's stomach. (The food items were "high seasoned alamode beef," raw salted lean beef, raw salted fat pork, raw lean fresh beef, boiled corned beef, stale bread, and raw cabbage.) St. Martin went back to his household duties. Beaumont pulled out the string one, two, and three hours later, to observe the rate of digestion for the different foods. Five hours after he first put the food into St. Martin's stomach, Beaumont removed the food pieces because St. Martin was suffering stomach distress. The next day, St. Martin still had indigestion, which Beaumont treated.

On August 7, 1825, Beaumont had St. Martin fast for 17 hours, and then took the temperature of St. Martin's stomach (it was 100 degrees) Beaumont removed gastric juice from St. Martin's stomach, then observed the rate of digestion of a piece of corned boiled beef "test-tube" style, while also placing the same-sized piece of meat directly into St. Martin's stomach. The stomach digested the meat in two hours; the vial of gastric juice took 10 hours (maintained at about 100 degrees). The next day, Beaumont repeated the experiments using boiled chicken, which he found digested slower than the beef. The experiments showed that gastric juice has solvent properties. In September, St. Martin returned home to Canada (where he married and had children), so Beaumont was unable to experiment on him further at this time.


In 1826, Beaumont was assigned to Fort Howard, Green Bay, which was then in Michigan Territory. (Beaumont simultaneously had a private practice in Green Bay.) The medical problems he saw included fevers, diarrhea, dysentery, and rheumatism; Beaumont connected the health issues with the area's weather (sudden changes in weather, cold weather, hot weather that turned the water bad, damp weather, etc.). Beaumont thought that the numerous wounds and sprains he saw were caused by alcohol abuse, as soldiers in those days were rationed an entire "gill" of whiskey a day (two gills a day if a soldier was on manual labor duty for 10 or more days). The military continued the daily whiskey ration until 1830.

In 1828, Dr. Beaumont was transferred to the Fifth Regiment's headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, but while en route to St. Louis he stopped at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, whose commander ordered Beaumont to stay so their medical officer could go on leave. This "stopover" lasted four years. Fort Crawford's biggest medical problem was malaria, caused by mosquitoes and the area's problem of flooding each spring (Prairie du Chien is where the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers join.). In 1830, almost 75% of the fort's troops had malaria. It was at Fort Crawford where Dr. Beaumont began a lifelong friendship with Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, whose grandfather was the famous Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen of Vermont; Hitchcock eventually became a Major-General.


In June 1829, Alexis St. Martin returned to the Beaumonts, this time bringing his wife and family to Fort Crawford. Beaumont was busy with his medical work so did not have time to resume experiments with St. Martin until December 1829 through March 1830. One set of observations was to try to determine any relation between digestion and weather. By observing St. Martin on different days and times and in varying weather conditions, Beaumont saw that dry weather increases stomach temperature, and humid weather lowers it (a healthy stomach being 100 degrees).

Dr. Beaumont was busy treating patients with "intermittent fever" during the area's summer flood and fall rains in 1830. In January 1831, Beaumont just observed the normal process of digestion in the stomach. St. Martin would eat a normal meal and resume his work, and Beaumont would periodically take samples from St. Martin's stomach. Another experiment compared what happened to food placed in a vial of gastric juice (temperature not controlled), food placed in a container of water, and food eaten by St. Martin; he learned that gastric juice needed heat to digest (i.e., that cold gastric juice has no effect on food). Beaumont used more variety of food samples while at Fort Crawford; he found that vegetables are less digestible than other foods, and milk coagulates before the digestive process. St. Martin sometimes became irritable doing experiments (it was stressful for him to have food removed from his stomach), and Beaumont observed that being angry can hinder one's digestion. In April 1831, St. Martin and his family left for their home in Canada, traveling by canoe or portage all the way to Montreal.


In late 1832, Beaumont began a leave from the Army, intending to conduct further experiments on the digestive system. He located Alexis St. Martin in October, dropped off his wife Deborah and children in Plattsburgh (where Deborah's family lived), and traveled with St. Martin to Washington, D.C. Beaumont again tried different foods with St. Martin, including raw oysters, sausage, mutton, and "boiled salted fat pork." Beaumont focused on gastric juice, but did not study the importance of saliva on digestion; sometimes, he put food directly into St. Martin's stomach (once, he put in 12 raw oysters). He also observed that exercise helped the production and release of gastric juice. (Another limitation on Beaumont's work is that he could not obtain a chemical analysis of the gastric juice, as chemical analysis was severely limited in the mid-nineteenth century.)

Dr. Samuel Beaumont
Dr. Samuel Beaumont

In mid-April 1833, Beaumont went to Plattsburgh, New York, where Beaumont was reunited with his family and began work on publishing his observations in a book, "Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion." Dr. William Beaumont's cousin, Dr. Samuel Beaumont, had published a small newspaper prior to becoming a doctor himself (he apprenticed under William), so Samuel was quite helpful to William with the book's initial printing in 1833 (and with its second edition in 1846). Sometime in April or May 1833, St. Martin left for Canada due to the death of one of his children; he expected to rejoin Beaumont by June 1 for more experiments, but as it turned out, St. Martin and Dr. Beaumont never again saw each other.


In July 1834, William Beaumont began service at his last Army post, at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. Beaumont made several attempts to get Alexis St. Martin to come to St. Louis, but Beaumont was unwilling to pay enough money for St. Martin's family to come with him. It was here that the Beaumonts became close friends of Robert E. Lee and his family; Lee was then a young Army lieutenant who was responsible for improving the St. Louis harbor, making it safer for boats. Beaumont participated in the new local medical society, which soon became the state medical society.

In 1839, the Army wanted to send Dr. Beaumont to Florida, as medical officers were greatly needed in the battlefield due to the war against the Seminoles. Beaumont resigned from the Army rather than move to Florida. His St. Louis medical practice now earned him about $10,000 a year, despite a depression in the city.


He continued his private medical practice in St. Louis. In March 1853, Dr. Beaumont slipped on an icy step while exiting a patient's home, hitting his head severely. The occipital hematoma became infected, his condition deteriorated, and he died on April 25. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.


William Beaumont is memorialized now by a number of medical history organizations and a building in Washington. Also:


Alexis St. Martin
Photo of Alexis St. Martin
at about age 81 years.
Alexis St. Martin lived 58 years after his accident. After returning home to Canada for good, he worked as a farmer and itinerant laborer ("chopping wood by the cord," he described it). After the doctor's death, St. Martin did make a brief visit in 1856 to Dr. Beaumont's home in St. Louis, where he spoke with Deborah Beaumont. After Deborah's death, St. Martin frequently corresponded with Dr. Beaumont's son Israel; in 1879, he wrote that he had "been ill for six years . . . I am suffering a little from my gastric fistula, and my digestion grows worse than ever." His lawyer, Judge Baby of Montreal, said that St. Martin was "very much addicted to drink" in his 80's.

When St. Martin died at age 86 on June 24, 1880 in St. Thomas de Joliette, Canada, his family deliberately let his body decompose in the hot sun for four days and then buried it in the Catholic churchyard in a deep unmarked grave, with heavy rocks atop the coffin, hoping to prevent anyone from examining his stomach or performing an autopsy. Years later, to commemorate St. Martin's contribution to medical science, a committee finally persuaded one of St. Martin's granddaughters to disclose the grave's location; in 1962, a plaque was placed on the church's wall near the grave, stating Alexis' history, and that "through his affliction he served all humanity."

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