Dr. William Beaumont
-Written by Ian Hall
William Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Connecticut on November 21, 1785. His family moved from England in 1635. William was the second born out of nine children. His parents were named Samuel and Lucretia Beaumont. In 1807, William left for Champlain. There, he became the schoolmaster and secretary for the local debating society.
On September 13, 1812, when he was 26, William went into the army as a surgeon’s mate, and was paid $30 a month. In 1813, The British army retreated, blowing up the main magazine in the process. The explosion caused lots of injuries. Beaumont was treating injuries, some that included using a cylindrical saw to cut off pieces of bone, to relieve pressure on the brain. (ouch!)
After the war, Beaumont left the army and began private practice in June, 1815, in Plattsburgh, NY.
There he met Deborah Green Platt. In December, 1819, William went back to the army as a post surgeon. He was sent to Fort Mackinac in Lake Huron. The hospital was in a storehouse. They had little supplies, and no thermometer.
In August, 1821, Beaumont left to go back to Plattsburgh, and married Deborah. They moved to Fort Mackinac, and brought Melancton Smith, Deborah’s 11-year-old step-nephew. Melancton’s father was Colonel Melancton Smith who died in 1818.
On June 6, 1822, Alexis St. Martin was shot by an accidental discharge of a shotgun in the upper left of his abdomen. He was shot less than three feet away from the gun. This was at the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island. St. Martin was brought to Dr. Beaumont, leaving the doctor to find the man’s latest meal gushing out of the wound. Beaumont cleaned the hole, but could not keep the contents of his stomach from falling out unless it was bandaged.
On August 1, 1825, Beaumont began to experiment on St. Martin’s stomach. Those experiments included tying string to a piece of food and lowering it into St. Martin’s stomach. After a few hours, Beaumont would take it out to see the extent of digestion. In one experiment, the food was removed after five hours for Alexis had a severe stomachache. The next day, St. Martin still had stomach problems, and Beaumont helped. Six days later, St. Martin didn’t eat for 17 hours (on Doctor’s orders!) so Beaumont could find the temperature of the stomach, which was 100 degrees.
A month later in September, Alexis went back to Canada, got married and had kids, so Beaumont had to wait to experiment on him.
In June, 1829, St. Martin came back to the doctor, but he brought his family this time. However, the doctor was busy and could not continue work until December. When he observed St. Martin on dry days, he saw that the temperature of the stomach increased, and vice versa on humid days. Beaumont would have St. Martin eat a meal, and then would later take out samples of the food and put them in separate vials of water, and gastric juice. He observed that cold stomach acid does nothing, so digestion needs heat. He also learned that when Alexis showed anger, it slowed the digestion process.
Near the end of 1832, Beaumont left the army to experiment on Alexis more. Beaumont tried a variety of different foods again, this time including sausage, raw oysters, and mutton. He saw that exercise helped the digestion. In April, 1833, Beaumont published his work and findings in a book called: Experiments and observations on the gastric juice and the physiology of digestion. A month or so later Alexis left for Canada, and Beaumont went into private medical practice.
Dr. William Beaumont kept up the private practice in St. Louis. In March, 1853, Beaumont was leaving a patient when he slipped on the icy steps and hit his head. He died a month later on April 25, and was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.