(b. Lebanon, Connecticut, 21 November 1785; d. St. Louis, Missouri, 25 April 1853)
William Beaumont was the son of a farmer. Deciding not to follow his father’s occupation, he left home in the winter of 1806. He set out with a horse and cutter, a barrel of cider, and $100 and drove northward, arriving at Champlain, New York, in the spring of 1807. There he became the village schoolmaster and taught for three years, During this period, Beaumont employed his spare time to read medical books borrowed from Dr. Seth Pomeroy, a Burlington, Vermont, physician. Having decided to study medicine, he became an apprentice to Dr. Benjamin Chandler, a general practitioner in St. Albans, Vermont. In June 1812, after two years of study, he received a license to practice from the Medical Society of Vermont. That month war broke out between Great Britain and the United States, and in September, Beaumont joined the army as acting surgeon’s mate. After resigning from the army in 1815, he practiced at Plattsburg for five years, but then took a commission as a post surgeon and was ordered to Fort Mackinac, now in Michigan.
Here, on 6 June 1822, an accident occurred. A shotgun had been carelessly loaded and had gone off. A nineteen-year-old French Canadian. Alexis St. Martin, a trapper employed by the American Fur Company, had been standing about two or three feet from the muzzle of the gun and received the entire charge in his left side. Beaumont was called to care for the trapper. Despite a very poor prognosis, St. Martin recovered. After ten months his wound was to a large extent healed. However, extensive parts of the injured lung and of the stomach sloughed off, and as a result of the union between the lacerated edges of the stomach and the intercostal muscles, a gastric fistula developed. Touched by the young trapper’s misfortune, Beaumont took him into his own home; where he remained almost two years, until he was completely recovered. But the large fistula into his stomach remained.
The idea of carrying out experiments on digestion in a human subject occurred to Beaumont in the spring of 1825, and in May he began his investigations. From 1825 to 1833 Beaumont carried out four groups of experiments while stationed at several army posts (Mackinac, Niagara, Crawford, St. Louis). These studies were interrupted for varying periods, ranging from several months to four years, because of St. Martin’s trips to Canada. It was not by accident that Beaumont recognized the opportunity presented by St. Martin’s gastric fistula. Although he was self-educated, he had a curious mind and was eager to learn. From his writings it is clear that he was of the scientific literature concerned with gastric abreast physiology and pathology, and he employed the knowledge available to him to organize his experiments and observations. Aware of his limited knowledge of chemistry, he requested the assistance of Robley Dunglison, professor of physiology at the University of Virginia, and or Benjamin Silliman, professor of chemistry at Yale University. Both of them analyzed specimens of St. Martin’s gastric Juice, and established the presence in it of free hydrochloric acid. A portion of the gastic juice was sent by Silliman to the Swedish chemist Berzelius, but his investigation was incomplete and arrived too late to be included in Beaumont’s book. In 1834, Beaumont also sent some gastric juice to Charles F. Jackson, one of the co-discoverers of ether anesthesia.
The experiments were concluded by November 1833, and in December of that year his book was published at Plattsburg in an edition of 1,000 copies. The work is an octavo volume of 280 pages entitled Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. The book is divided into two parts, a general discussion of the Physiology of digestion and a detailed description of the experiments. The presentation concludes with fifty-one inferences drawn by the author from his researches The material is presented in an unpretentious, matter-of-fact style. Beaumont restricted himself to a relation of his experiments and observations. and was very cautious, avoiding all unsupported assertions.
In 1834, after the publication of his book, Beaumont was posted at St. Louis, where he remained in service until his resignation in 1839, when he went into general practice. As a general practitioner he exhibited the strong common sense that characterizes his experimental work, earning the esteem of his fellow citizens. In March 1853, he suffered a fall, resulting in a fractured hip. Several weeks later a carbuncle appeared on his neck, and on April 25, he succumbed to his illness.
Not only did Beaumont’s experiments soon become known to his friends, but before long, reports of his work also spread across the Atlantic to Europe. As early as 1826 two articles dealing with the case of St. Martin appeared in Germany, and it was soon noticed in Scotland and France. The publication of noticed in Scotland and France. The publication of Beaumont’s book created considerable interest among European scientists and physicians, and in general was favorably received. A German translation was published at Leipzig in 1834, and at about the same time, the American edition was noted in the English, German, and French literature. The most significant response came from Germany, where Beaumont’s experiments influenced various investigators, among them Johannes Müller, Theodor Schwann, and J. B. Purkinje. In France, Nicolas Blondlot, professor of chemistry at Nancy, impressed by the reports of St. Martin’s accident, his recovery, and its consequences, hit upon the idea of imitating in animals the fistula that the Canadian had retained after his recovery. Until the 1860’, Beaumont’s work was referred to by physiologists, pathologists, and clinicians. Because of a number of factors, however, interest in his investigations declined during the last third of the century. The introduction of the stomach pump by Kussmaul(1867)gave research workers a simpler instrumentality with which to carry out investigations. This circumstance, together with the rapid development of physiological chemistry during the later nineteenth century, shifted the emphasis in research to the chemical aspects of digestion. Moreover, it was found that the secretions of the salivary glands, of the liver, of the pancreas, and of the intestine played a very much greater role than had previously been assumed. Nonetheless, the value of William Beaumont’s contributions to gastric physiology and pathology had been established, and it is clear that he was the first American physiologist to make a major contribution to the development of the science.
In the eighteenth century Réaumur and Spallanzani had shown digestion to be a chemical process. Nevertheless, a good deal of confusion prevailed concerning various aspects of the digestive process in the stomach; it is to Beaumont that we owe the clarification of this subject. The results of his investigations attracted the attention of the scientific world, and within a short time gained admission to the literature dealing with the stomach.
Beaumont contributed to the development of gastric physiology by substantiating doubtful observations of other scientists and by stimulating new investigations. He demonstrated once again, both in the stomach and outside the body, that digestion is the result of a chemical process. At the time Beaumont was carrying out his experiments the nature of the effective agent of the gastric juice was still unknown A number of experiments on artificial digestion with dilute acids convinced him that such as effort “to imitate the gastric juice … was not satisfactory. Probably the gastric juice contains some principles inappreciable to the senses, or to chemical tests, besides the alkaline substances already discovered in it.” Schwann’s discovery of pepsin in 1836 showed that Beaumont’s surmise had been correct.
Several details of gastric physiology still to be found in modern textbooks were established by Beaumont. He observed that gastric juice was not found in the stomach in the absence of food and that water and other fluids passed very rapidly and directly from the stomach through the pylorus . He also observed a retrograde passage of the duodenal contents. Beaumont ascertained by direct observation that psychic influences are to a considerable degree able to affect gastric secretion and digestion. Some investigators saw the significance of these observations, which, however, were not pursued until Pavlov began his research.
Beaumont studied the digestibility of various foods, as well as the action of stimulants such as coffee, tea, and alcohol on gastric digestion, thus creating a foundation for practical dietetics, which even today remains on of the most important contributions to this subject. He knew very little about the functions of the rest of the digestive system, and believed that the food was almost completely digested in the stomach. Consequently, he assumed that the time that and its departure therefrom represented an index of its digestibility. Moreover, he also belived that several other conditions that might possibly influences digestion—for instance, the size of the meal—could be disregarded. Despite these limitations, however, his average determinations of the time required for digestion generally agree with those later obtained by means of the stomach tube.
On the basis of his observations in vivo, Beaumont was the first to attempt an exact description of the way the gastric contractions move and mix the chyme within the stomach. By fixing his glance on an easily recognizable object as soon as it passed through the cardia, he was able to follow its further movements. In the course of his experiments Beaumont frequently introduced a thermometer into the stomach and convinced himself that it was subject to the same movements. Except for slight modifications by William Brinton in 1848, Beaumont’s observations on gastric mobility remained unchanged until they were superseded by Walter B. Cannon’s roentgenological investigations between 1898 and 1911.
The technique of animal experimentation was also greatly influenced by Beaumont’s experiments. During the seventeenth century, Regnier de Graaf had established a pancreatic fistula in a dog, but the method was not developed and soon lapsed into oblivion. St. Martin’s history and Beaumont’s experiments stimulated Blondlot to establish artificial gastric fistula in animals. This successful endeavor led other scientific investigators to develop and to extend the fistula method. Schwann in 1844 reported the experimental creation of a gallbladder fistula, and in 1864, Thiry introduced the intestinal fistula. Klemensiewicz, in 1875, used Thiry’s approach to isolate the pyloric part of the stomach, and in 1879 R. Heidenhain employed it for the isolation of a portion of the corpus. In turn, Heidenhain, under whom Pavlov worked in 1877 and 1884, greatly influenced him in his study of gastric secretion and in the experimental development of an innervated gastric pouch. As these methods developed, it became possible to study with greater precision the activity of the digestive glands, their dependence on the nervous system, and the details of the digestive process.
Beaumont’s work led to a more accurate conception of gastritis and contributed to the development of gastric pathology. He described the occurrence of acute gastritis as a consequence of different causes, most frequently the excessive ingestion of alcoholic beverages or overloading the stomach with irritating foods. He also observed a reddening of the mucous membrane and cessation of gastric secretion in febrile states. These observations in turn led to therapeutic regimens for such conditions.
I. Original Works. In 1825 the Medical Recorder (8, no. 1) published a report of the case of St. Martin; the following year a report of four experiments performed on the same subject appeared in this periodical (Jan. 1826, no. 33). Beaumont published his final results as Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (Plattsburg, 1833), which was reissued in Boston in 1834, and the same year saw the appearance of a German translation at Leipzig as Neue Versuche und Beobachtungen über den Magensaft und die Physiologie der Verdauung, trans. by Dr. Bernhard Luden. A Scottish edition was published at Edinburgh in 1838. A second edition with corrections by Samuel Beaumont, a cousinof Beaumont, appeared in 1847 at Burlington, Vt. Facsimiles of the original edition of 1833, together with a biographical essay, “William Beaumont. A Pioneer American Physiologist,” by Sir William Osler, were issued in 1929, 1941, and 1959.
Two important collections of Beaumont papers, documents, and relics are located at the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Mo., and at the University of Chicago. A Beaumont memorial on Mackinac Island, Mich., recreates some of the circumstances under which Beaumont carried on his investigations.
II. Secondary Literature. The chief source for Beaumont’s life and work besides his own writings is Jesse S. Myer, Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont Including Hitherto Unpublished Data Concerning the Case of Alexis St. Martin (St. Louis, 1912; 2nd ed., 1939). Two of Beaumont’s early notebooks that give a picture of his medical training and early medical practice have been edited by Genevieve Miller: William Beaumont’s Formative Years: Two Early Notebooks 1811–1821 (New York, 1946). William Osler’s essay on Beaumont in An Alabama Student, and Other Biographical Essays (New York, 1909) is still useful and in addition is delightful to read. Another review of Beaumont’s career that should be consulted is W. S. Miller, “William Beaumont and His Book. Elisha North and His Copy of Beaumont’s Book,” in Annals of Medical History, 1 (1929), 155–179. The extensive biographical literature dealing with Beaumont is for the most part filiopietistic, derivative, repetitive, dreary, and not worth listing.
Descriptions of the Beaumont papers and artifacts are available in Arno B. Luckhardt. “The Dr. William Beaumont Collection of the University of Chicago, Donated by Mr. and Mrs. Ethan Allen Beaumont,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 7 (1939), 535–563; Alfred M. Whittaker, “The Beaumont Memorial on Mackinac Island,” ibid., 28 (1954), 385–389; and Phoebe A. Cassidy and Robert S. Sokol, Index to the William Beaumont M.D. (1785–1853) Manuscript Collection (St. Louis, 1968).
For an evaluation of the reception of Beaumont’s work by his contemporaries and successors, and its influence on physiology and medicine, see George Rosen. Die Aufnahme der Entdeckung William Beaumont’s durch die europaäische Medizin. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Physiologie im 19. Jahrhundert (Berlin. 1935). An English translation of this work, with a foreword by John F. Fulton, appeared as The Reception of William Beaumont’s Discovery in Europe (New York, 1942). For further discussion of some points in the reception of Beaumont’s work, see George Rosen, “Notes on the Reception and Influence of William Beaumont’s Discovery,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 13 (1943), 631–642; F. N. L. Poynter, “The Reception of William Beaumont’s Discovery in England. Two Additional Early References,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 12 (1957), 511–512; George Rosen,“The Reception of William Beaumont’s Discovery, Some Comments on Dr. Poynter’s Note,” ibid., 13 (1958), 404–406; F. N. L. Poynter, “New Light on the Reception of William Beaumont’s Discovery in England,” ibid., 406–409.
Early life and career
William Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, on November 21, 1785. He grew up on the family farm and attended village schools until 1806, when he left home to become the village schoolmaster in Champlain, New York. He began studying medicine in his spare time, and in 1810 he became an apprentice (one who works for another to learn a profession) to a doctor in Vermont. While living with the doctor and performing household duties, Beaumont gained invaluable experience by watching and sometimes assisting the doctor. While still a student, he began a lifelong habit of keeping a journal describing daily events and the symptoms and treatment of patients.
In 1812 the Third Medical Society of the State of Vermont recommended Beaumont as a medical practitioner. Soon afterward Beaumont served as a surgeon's mate in the War of 1812, where American forces clashed with the British over, among other things, trade. In his journal he described long and exhausting days and nights spent treating the wounded.
After the war Beaumont returned to private practice in Plattsburg, New York. In 1820 he reenlisted as an army surgeon and was sent to Fort Mackinac in the Michigan Territory. His account of the journey contains vivid descriptions of the voyage along the recently completed Erie Canal (a key waterway that connects the Great Lakes) and through the Canadian wilderness. He was the only doctor in the territory, and his practice included soldiers and their families, Native Americans, trappers, and settlers. In 1821 Beaumont returned briefly to Plattsburgh and married Deborah Platt.
A new development
On June 6, 1822 Alexis St. Martin, a young Canadian, suffered a stomach wound in a hunting accident. Beaumont was called to treat him. He described the terrible wound: "The whole charge, consisting of powder and duck shot, was received in the left side at not more than two or three feet distance from the muzzle of the piece … carrying away by its force integuments [skin of the organs] more than the size of the palm of a man's hand."
With Beaumont's skillful surgery and care that followed, St. Martin recovered but was left with a permanent opening in his stomach. When authorities threatened to send the recovering man back to Canada, Beaumont supported him in his own house for several years. During this time he was able to study the digestive process by examining the interior of the patient's stomach as various foods were ingested (swallowed). Beaumont's observations and chemical analyses of gastric juices (acidic juices found in the stomach) provided the foundations for conclusions which are still used today.
In 1824 when Beaumont was transferred to Fort Niagara, New York, he attempted to take St. Martin with him, but the young man returned to Canada. President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) promoted Beaumont to the rank of surgeon in 1826. He served at Green Bay, Wisconsin, and later at Fort Crawford, Wisconsin. Meanwhile, he had finally persuaded St. Martin to come to Fort Crawford for further experiments, but his plans to take his patient to Europe for demonstrations and study were interrupted by an outbreak of cholera, an oftentimes fatal infection transmitted through water.
Later in 1832 Beaumont used a six-month leave of absence to take St. Martin to Washington, D.C., for an extensive series of experiments. Both the surgeon general and the secretary of war supported the project with funds and facilities, and they even enlisted St. Martin in the army as sergeant in exchange for his cooperation. These experiments led to Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1833). The book is divided into two parts, one which details the experiments themselves, and another that discusses the processes of digestion.
Beaumont had additional experiments in mind, but St. Martin returned to Canada forever in 1834. Beaumont's last post was in St. Louis, Missouri, where he remained for the rest of his life. After his retirement in 1840, he continued private practice until his death on April 25, 1853.
For More Information
Epstein, Sam, and Beryl Epstein. Dr. Beaumont and the Man with the Hole in His Stomach. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1978.
Horsman, Reginald. Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America's First Great Medical Scientist. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
American Physician and Physiologist
William Beaumont, physician and physiologist, achieved international fame for the research on human digestion he performed on Alexis St. Martin, who became known as "the man with a hole in his stomach." Beaumont's work is important not only in terms of his scientific observations, but as a landmark in the history of human experimentation and biomedical ethics.
Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, into a poor farming family. Although Beaumont had little formal education, he was able to leave the family farm at age twenty-one and become schoolmaster in the village of Champlain, New York. His teaching position allowed him to save enough money to become a medical apprentice to Dr. Benjamin Chandler. The year that Beaumont spent with Chandler was his only formal medical training. Nevertheless, Beaumont joined the army as surgeon's mate during the War of 1812. Attempts to establish a private practice after the war were unsuccessful and Beaumont reenlisted in the Medical Department of the army.
Beaumont was sent to Fort Mackinac, which was then a remote army post on the Western frontier. Mackinac Island, in the straits of the Great Lakes, was an outpost of the American Fur Company. In addition to his work as post surgeon, Beaumont was allowed to establish a private medical practice in order to earn enough money to marry Deborah Green Platt and support a family.
On June 6, 1822, Alexis St. Martin, a young French Canadian, was accidentally shot in the abdomen at very close range. Beaumont thought the wound would be fatal, but he cared for St. Martin to the best of his ability with poultices of flour, charcoal, yeast, and hot water. He changed the dressings frequently, cleaned the wound, removed debris, and bled the patient to fight against fever. Surprisingly, St. Martin survived, but all attempts to close the wound were unsuccessful. Rather than allow the young man to make the difficult journey back to Canada, Beaumont hired St. Martin as a household servant. Although Beaumont was largely self-taught in physiology, as well as medicine, he soon realized that St. Martin's permanent gastrostomy (new opening into the stomach) provided a unique opportunity to study digestion in a healthy human being. He was able to conduct experiments that tested many contemporary theories of human digestion. Beaumont was able to insert and remove various kinds of foods from St. Martin's stomach and determine how long it took to digest them. Beaumont paid a small wage to St. Martin and planned to conduct lecture tours to demonstrate his experiments, but St. Martin frequently ran away. In 1832 Beaumont and St. Martin signed a contract that gave Beaumont the exclusive right to perform experiments on St. Martin. This document was the first such contract in the history of human scientific experimentation.
In 1833 Beaumont published his landmark work on human digestion, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. In his introduction, Beaumont assured the reader that the experimental procedures had caused no harm to St. Martin. He also emphasized his lack of formal training and claimed that this allowed him to make observations and conclusions without the distortion caused by allegiance to previous theories. His book provides a detailed case history of experimental results, a review of the scientific literature related to his researches, and various attacks on scientists who had reached conclusions different from his own. Beaumont is remembered as the first investigator to provide a detailed, experimentally based description of normal human digestion. Despite his lack of formal training, he became a pioneer of physiology and an outstanding figure in American medical and scientific history.
LOIS N. MAGNER
WILLIAM BEAUMONT AND MEDICAL MALPRACTICE
The last decades of William Beaumont's life were embittered by his involvement in two medical malpractice battles. Beaumont had unsuccessfully attempted to save the life of a man who had been attacked by Darnes Davis, a carpenter. Davis had struck his victim on the head with an iron cane. Beaumont attempted to relieve cranial pressure by performing a trephination (removal of a circular piece of bone). When the case came to trial in 1840, Davis's lawyers argued that Beaumont had caused the death by drilling a hole into the victim's skull in order to perform experiments on the brain, just as he had left a hole in St. Martin's stomach in order to do experiments on the digestion. Only four years later, Beaumont was involved in a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by Mary Dugan. Although Beaumont was acquitted, the case created a great deal of hostility in the medical community of St. Louis.
The American surgeon William Beaumont (1785-1853) is remembered for extensive studies of the human digestive system based on experiments on a live patient.
William Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Conn., on Nov. 21, 1785. He grew up on the family farm and attended village schools until 1806, when he left to become the village schoolmaster in Champlain, N.Y. He began studying medicine in his spare time, and in 1810 he became an apprentice to a doctor in Vermont. While still a student, he began a lifelong habit of keeping a journal describing daily events and the symptoms and treatment of patients. After his apprenticeship Beaumont served as a surgeon's mate in the War of 1812. He described in his journal grueling days and nights spent treating the wounded.
After the war Beaumont returned to private practice in Plattsburg, N.Y. In 1820 he reenlisted as an army surgeon and was sent to Fort Mackinac, Michigan Territory. His account of the journey contains vivid descriptions of the voyage along the recently completed Erie Canal and through the Canadian wilderness. He was the only doctor in the territory, and his practice included soldiers and their families, Native Americans, trappers, and settlers. In 1821 Beaumont returned briefly to Plattsburgh and married Deborah Platt.
On June 6, 1822, when Alexis St. Martin, a young Canadian, suffered a stomach wound in a hunting accident, Beaumont was called to treat him. He described the terrible wound: "The whole charge, consisting of powder and duck shot, was received in the left side at not more than two or three feet distance from the muzzle of the piece … carrying away by its force integuments more than the size of the palm of a man's hand." With Beaumont's skillful surgery and subsequent care, St. Martin recovered but was left with a permanent opening in his stomach. When authorities threatened to send the young convalescent back to Canada, Beaumont supported him in his own house for several years. During this time he was able to study the digestive process by examining the interior of the patient's stomach as various foods were ingested. Beaumont's observations and chemical analyses of gastric juices provided the foundations for conclusions which are still valid.
In 1824, when Beaumont was transferred to Fort Niagara, N.Y., he attempted to take St. Martin with him, but the young man returned to Canada. President John Quincy Adams promoted Beaumont to the rank of surgeon in 1826. He served at Green Bay, Wis., and later at Fort Crawford, Wis. Meanwhile, he had finally persuaded St. Martin to come to Fort Crawford for further experiments, but his plans to take his patient to Europe for demonstrations and study were interrupted by an outbreak of cholera. Later in 1832 Beaumont used a 6-month furlough to take St. Martin to Washington, D.C., for an extensive series of experiments. Both the surgeon general and the secretary of war supported the project with funds and facilities, and they even enlisted St. Martin in the army as sergeant in exchange for his cooperation. These experiments led to Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1833).
Beaumont had additional experiments in mind, but St. Martin returned to Canada forever in 1834. Beaumont's last post was in St. Louis, Mo., where he remained the rest of his life. After his retirement in 1840, he continued private practice until his death in March 1853.
No biography of Beaumont supersedes Jesse S. Myer, Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont (1912). Valuable references are the introduction by Sir William Osler to the 1941 reprint of the 1833 edition of Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion; Genevieve Miller's prefatory comments to her edition of William Beaumont's Formative Years: Two Early Notebooks, 1811-1821 (1946); and the relevant selections in Scott Earle, ed., Surgery in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (1965). See also Richard H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (1936; rev. ed. 1947) and Medicine and Society in America, 1660-1860 (1960). □