Bizarre stomach experiment: June 6, 1822

A U.S. Army doctor named William Beaumont, stationed at a fort in upper Michigan, rushes to try to save a young fur trapper nearby who has been accidentally shot in the stomach.  He treats the 20-year-old, named Alexis St. Martin, but assumes he won’t survive.  But St. Martin doesn’t die. His wound, however, heals in a strange way.  The perforated edge of his stomach grows into his skin. So while a flap a skin covers it, the hole never closes.

Beaumont realizes he has  a unique opportunity to study what actually happens in a human stomach.  To keep St. Martin around, he hires him as a handyman.  Then, a few  years later, he begins a somewhat bizarre science experiment.  He ties silk string around bits of different types of food and lowers them into St. Martin’s gut.

Beaumont did this 238 times over the next eight years, keeping meticulous notes of how long it took  different types of food to be fully digested. He recorded, for instance, that animal brains took an hour and 45 minutes, baked custard lasted two hours and 45 minutes and a hard-boiled egg took three hours and 30 minutes in the digestive juices before it was gone.

At one point he was able to remove acid from St. Martin’s stomach and put it in small cups. Then he dropped food into the liquid and watched it slowly dissolve.  This proved that stomach acid, and not just the mashing, pounding and squeezing of the stomach, digests food into nutrients. Beaumont had shown that digestion was primarily a chemical process and not a mechanical one.

In 1833, he published a book, “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion," and soon became known as the "Father of Gastric Physiology." He traveled around the U.S. giving lectures on his discovery, sometimes taking St. Martin along as his “living laboratory.”

By the mid-1830s, though, the pair parted ways, with St. Martin moving back to Quebec while Beaumont settled in St. Louis.  Several times over the next 20 years the doctor tried to convince St. Martin to come to Missouri so he could conduct more experiments.  But St. Martin never made the trip.

Beaumont died in 1853 as a result of injuries he suffered when he slipped on ice-covered steps. St. Martin, meanwhile, lived a long life, dying at the age of 78.  When his family heard that some doctors wanted to do an autopsy, they let his body decompose for three days before burying it so it wouldn’t be subjected to any more scientific probing.

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