American doctor and physiologist, best known for conducting a series of experiments on the trapper Alexis St. Martin that produced significant findings about the chemistry of digestion
B eaumont, educated through the old apprenticeship system, was an army surgeon during and after the war of 1812. On June 6, 1822, while stationed at Fort Mackinac (Michigan) he treated Alexis St. Martin, a French Canadian voyageur (an intermediary between Indian trappers and a fur company). St. Martin had been wounded in the side with duck shot, severely injuring his lower ribs, left lung, diaphragm, and stomach. He survived but was left with a permanent fistula, or opening, in his stomach.
Taking advantage of the perforation, which allowed him to see into the stomach, Beaumont performed a series of experiments on St. Martin. In 1825, Beaumont became the first to see the process of digestion as it occurred in the stomach. He dangled pieces of food on a string, removed and then replaced them. He was able to observe the process of digestion through the hole in St. Martin's stomach. He then compared this process to the chemical process of digestion by gastric juice in test tubes. With the aid of the chemist Benjamin Silliman at Yale, it was determined that free hydrochloric acid formed the basis for the digestive juices. In 1829-31, when stationed at Fort Crawford (in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin), St. Martin rejoined Beaumont for a second set of experiments. In addition to his general observation of St. Martin's digestion, Beaumont studied the correlation between digestion and weather, proving that temperature and humidity have a direct impact on digestion. His laboratory work on digestion showed that gastric juices need heat to break down food. A side effect of the uncomfortable experiments was a high level of stress, which led to Beaumont's unanticipated observation that anger can hinder digestion.
Beaumont published his Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion in 1833. This widely cited book made Beaumont one of America's scientific heroes. It provided practical dietary advice and offered evidence for a new chemical theory of the stomach's function. It was previously believed that the stomach served a mechanical digestive function as a grinding organ or was involved in chemical digestion only as a fermentation vat. While earlier physiologists had speculated that the process was more complex, it was
Beaumont who was able to prove this. By observing the digestion of a wide range of foods, he determined how they were processed. Thus, a bit of raw potato took many hours to even be slightly "processed," while fish "may be regarded as easily susceptible of digestion" (Beaumont 1833: 48). He provided a detailed table of the digestive times for a wide range of foods. Beaumont's observation of hunger and thirst provided some of the first pragmatic insights into the relationship between satiety and the actual process of digestion. He was able to show that hunger "is the effect of distention of the vessels that secrete the gastric juice" (Beaumont 1833: 276). The book contained 238 experiments and fifty-one conclusions, surprisingly few of which have been shown to be flawed.
Beaumont and St. Martin never met again. Beaumont, who subsequently had a lucrative private practice, died in St. Louis in i853 of a head injury from falling on an icy step. St. Martin, although he had been paid rather well by both Beaumont and the U.S. Government, was frustrated with the experiments. Prior to his death in i880, it was rumored that St. Martin had requested that his body be allowed to decompose for days to prevent it from being used for experiment before burial in an unmarked grave. Certainly, when the great Canadian physician and teacher William Osler requested that he be permitted to undertake an autopsy, he was informed by the local priest that "the body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that it could not be admitted into the Church . . . the family resisted all requests . . . for an autopsy" (Myer 1912: xvii). He was warned by a local physician, "Don't come for autopsy; will be killed." In 1962, a plaque was erected at the Church at St. Thomas de Joli-ette in Quebec commemorating St. Martin's services to science. It reads: "Through his Affliction he served all Humanity."
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