Fortunately about this time an Indian got shot. On June 6, 1822, to be exact, at Mackinac. His name, which will be floating on the surface of the river of time when every poet and columnist now living shall long have been forgotten, was Alexis St. Martin. The accidental discharge of a shot-gun in the trader’s store of that frontier post tore off the skin and muscles in the upper part of St. Martin’s abdomen and the outer layer of the wall of his stomach.
A young United States Army surgeon, William Beaumont, was called to attend him. Beaumont stitched the edges of the stomach to the skin. To his surprise the patient lived. He now had a man with a hole in his stomach. Beaumont could see the stomach move. He could see the digestive juice ooze out upon the surface of the stomach. He decided to do some experiments. He attached a piece of meat to a string and inserted it into the stomach. Half an hour later he pulled out the string, to find the meat frayed at the edges. An hour later it was half gone. Two hours later he pulled out the string, but the meat was completely dissolved. He found that gastric juice appeared only when food entered the stomach or when food was being chewed in the mouth. He put a rubber tube in the stomach and drew off some pure gastric juice; he sent it to Professor Dunglison at the University of Virginia, who found that it contained hydrochloric acid. It was the first time pure gastric juice had ever been submitted to careful chemical analysis.
Beaumont decided that St. Martin was a valuable find. He took him into his household as a servant so he could study his stomach. St. Martin did not prove a very docile experimental animal. He got drunk. Right in the middle of a series of experiments he would disappear, sometimes for months. In spite of these temperamental interruptions Beaumont persisted. In 1833 he published his observations. The little book, published at the author’s expense at Plattsburg, New York, is one of the great landmarks in the history of physiology. So carefully did Beaumont do his work – and remember it was done not in a handsomely equipped physiological laboratory, but in a frontier fur-trading post under the rudest surroundings – that comparatively little has been added to our knowledge of the physiology of digestion since his time.
The after history of the two men so strangely associated has an interest of a personal nature.
In 1839 Beaumont resigned from the army and began to practise medicine in St. Louis, and in 1852 he died there. But his experimental animal lived on. He still got drunk with unphysiologic regularity, he still was known as “the man with a lid on his stomach,” but still he lived on. He did not die until 1880. The young professor of physiology in Montreal at the time, named William Osler, heard of his death and offered the widow quite a sum of money for Alexis’s stomach. But the widow refused and buried her husband eight feet below the surface of the earth, where young professors of physiology could not break in. William Osler went to Philadelphia. The Army Medical Museum contains no jar with the stomach of Alexis St. Martin in it. But his stomach and William Beaumont’s mind taught the world nearly all it knows about digestion.