The Accidental Father of Gastroenterology


This holiday season as people were complaining about having eaten too much or lamenting their indigestion by popping antacids they probably weren’t giving too much thought to where our modern understanding of how the digestive system works came from. What they probably don’t know is that the father of modern gastric physiology or gastroenterology, Dr. William Beaumont, achieved such status through both odd and dubious ethical means. In fact, the case of Dr. William Beaumont and his patient turned guinea pig Alexis St. Martin is perhaps one of the strangest cases in the annals of medical history.

The story begins in 1822 when Alexis St. Martin, a twenty-year-old fur trapper was attending a festive gathering of other fur trappers, known as a rendezvous, at the trading post on Mackinac Island, Michigan. One of his fellow fur trappers had imbibed a bit too much, and accidentally fired a musket, shooting St. Martin at close range. The musket ball (some say it was a load of buckshot) tore through the skin and ribs a couple of inches below the left nipple and dropped the young man to the ground. Hygiene and medical knowledge being what they were at the time the other trappers at the rendezvous assumed St. Martin would die shortly of infection or blood loss and so they carried the injured man to the nearby army post where a young physician named Dr. William Beaumont was stationed. Dr. Beaumont was asked to simply keep the young St. Martin comfortable until he succumbed to his wound.

Dr. Beaumont took St. Martin into his care, and as one did in 1822 to keep a patient comfortable, bled him with leeches and gave him an enema. But a curious thing happened as Dr. Beaumont sat waiting for Alexis St. Martin to —> Read More