Famous Michigander Friday: William Beaumont

Dr. William Beaumont. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicing

Dr. William Beaumont. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

For those of you who live in the Detroit area, you are probably familiar with the Beaumont Hospital commercials. You know the ones, where a very serious sounding man asks “Do YOU have a Beaumont doctor?” as if a doctor at any other hospital is basically Jack the Ripper. Now don’t get me wrong, Beaumont is a great hospital, but those commercials have always made me laugh. Then, a few years ago, I learned who exactly William Beaumont was, and now I laugh a little harder at the commercials, because I’m not so sure I would actually want him as a doctor.

William Beaumont was, in fact, a perfectly good doctor. He was born in 1785 in Lebanon, Connecticut and became a doctor through an apprenticeship, a common method in those days. During the War of 1812, he joined the U.S. Army as a surgeon’s mate, and served in Plattsburgh, New York throughout the war. After the war he entered private practice in Plattsburgh, but he couldn’t stay away from the military for long. In 1819 he rejoined the army and was assigned to Fort Mackinac. Fort Mackinac is on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, right at the northern tip of the lower peninsula. Dr. Beaumont was not terribly happy at Ford Mackinac, especially due to the poor conditions of the post hospital, a converted storehouse. The building barely kept out the elements, so much so that patient’s beds had to be moved when it rained to keep them from getting wet. The post was also continually short of supplies, making his job difficult. Nonetheless, he began to make the fort his home, eventually taking leave to marrying Deborah Green Platt, a woman he had met in Plattsburgh, and bringing her back to the island.

It was in  1822 that Dr. Beaumont’s story gets interesting. On June 6, French-Canadian voyageur Alexis St. Martin of the American Fur Company was accidentally shot in the stomach. He came to Dr. Beaumont at the fort, who treated him the best he could but fully expected St. Martin to die from his injuries. Miraculously, St. Martin survived, but was left with a small hole, known as a fistula, in his stomach that never fully healed. The fistula was large enough that Dr. Beaumont could insert his entire forefinger into the cavity, and it had to be covered to keep food from coming out and to prevent infection.

So now St. Martin is walking around with a hole in his stomach, which is a bit of a problem for him. No longer able to work as a voyageur, Dr. Beaumont hires him to work for his family. St. Martin continued to live and work with the Beaumont family on Mackinac Island for three years, and then relocated with them to Fort Niagara in 1825 when the military changed Dr. Beaumont’s posting. It was at this point that Dr. Beaumont realized that St. Martin’s predicament, while unfortunate, could be incredibly beneficial to medical science. This was an unprecedented opportunity to observe how the human digestion system worked! And so he began to perform experiments on St. Martin. He began by tying a piece of food to a string and inserting it into the hole. Every few house he would remove the food to see how well it had been digested. He tried different types of food, including beef (fresh, salted, boiled) and bread (stale and fresh) to see if it made a difference in how quickly the stomach broke it down. He also procured a sample of gastric acid from St. Martin for analysis, which he put food into to see if it would break down outside the person. It did, which taught him that it was the acid itself, not just the action of the digestive tract, that digests food into nutrients.

Although these experiments did not harm St. Martin in any way and there is no evidence that he was coerced into participating, they still could not have been pleasant. Dr. Beaumont’s writing states that he occasionally had to stop an experiment due to intestinal distress on the part of the patient, and for some experiments he had St. Martin fast for day to see what effect it had on digestion. He also discovered at one point that anger hinders digestion, although it appears that was an accidental discovery!

Nonetheless, St. Martin continued to live with the Beaumonts and go through with the experiments until Dr. Beaumont was again transferred, this time to Green Bay, Wisconsin. St. Martin left the family to travel back home to Quebec where he married an started a family. Shockingly, the story does not end there, because a few years later in 1828, Dr. Beaumont moved yet again, this time to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin. While at Fort Crawford Dr. Beaumont paid St. Martin to bring his family out and continue his work for the family – and to continue his experiments. Clearly, the experience had not scarred St. Martin too badly, as he accepted the offer and returned. The experiments started back up in 1831, at which point Dr. Beaumont began testing the affect of temperature, exercise and emotions on digestion. In 1832, Dr. Beaumont took leave from the army and traveled with St. Martin to Washington, DC to continue his experiments. A year later, Dr. Beaumont published his findings, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion. St. Martin returned to Canada after the death of one of his children. Although he intended to return, Dr. Beaumont (now in St. Louis) refused to pay for the entire family to travel, and so St. Martin stayed in Canada. Their experiments would never be resumed.

Dr. Beaumont resigned from the army in 1839 to avoid being transferred to Florida. He died in 1853 after slipping on ice at a patient’s door. After his death, St. Martin visited the family once and kept up a correspondence with one of Dr. Beaumont’s sons for years. St. Martin lived to be 86, passing away in 1880. His family was fearful that scientist would continue to use his body for research, and so they allowed his body to decompose for four days and then buried it in an unmarked grave in their Catholic graveyard. Years later, his granddaughter disclosed the location and in 1962 a plaque was placed on the church’s wall in memory of his contribution to science.

Dr. Beaumont work caused him to be commemorated by many institutions and through many mediums. Along with the Beaumont Hospital system in the Detroit region, there is the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas (which also has the Saint Martin Dining Facility) and Beaumont Hall on the SUNY Plattsburgh campus. You can also visit the American Fur Company Store and Dr. Beaumont Museum on Mackinac Island as well as his birthplace in Lebanon, Connecticut, which has been restored by the Beaumont Homestead Preservation Trust and currently run by the Lebanon Historical Society. His work has also been the subject of numerous books and articles, including the historical novel Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont by Dr. Jason Karlawish and an April 2012 story on the NPR radio show Radiolab.

So that’s the real story behind William Beaumont. Although he was a good doctor and his work made major advances in medical science, I’m just not sure I’d want him to be my doctor – not that I have any holes in my stomach to experiment on! However, his story is fascinating and a perfect addition to the Famous Michigander Friday series. He may not have lived in Michigan for long, but it was his time here that shaped his life and career.

Guts,” Radiolab podcast, April 2, 2012
Life of Dr. William Beaumont
Lowenfels, Albert, “The Case of the Wounded Woodsman and his Dedicated Physician” Medscape, September 2, 2009
Myer, Jesse S., Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont, St. Louis: C.V. Mosby Company, 1912


One thought on “Famous Michigander Friday: William Beaumont

  1. Pingback: No.VI | Mitten History

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