Alexis St. Martin Becomes Living X-Ray

On this day in 1822, Alexis St. Martin was shot in the stomach. His misfortune led to a series of stomach-churning experiments into digestion that the American physician William Beaumont conducted on him in the years from 1822 to 1833.

Born at the end of the 18th century, St. Martin worked as a voyageur (or coureur de bois) in Canada. An entrepreneurial French-Canadian woodsman, he travelled into the forests to trade with the natives, primarily to obtain furs such as beaver pelts.

It all started with an unfortunate accident; St. Martin was inadvertently shot at close range with a musket at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island in what is today Michigan. The blast blew a hole through his side, and when it healed it formed a fistula aperture in his stomach—meaning an abnormal passageway that would not normally be there.

He was taken to a nearby army base, and treated by Beaumont. Amazingly, despite the severity of the injuries (including blown-off muscles and broken ribs), the surgeon was able to save him. For 16 days, all of the food that the voyageur ate fell out of the fistula aperture, but on the 17th day some of the food started staying in his stomach and passing on into his bowels.

Little was known about our digestive systems in the early 19th century, and Beaumont soon realised that he had a golden opportunity to study this part of the human body through St. Martin’s exposed stomach. He could, quite literally, watch his subject digest his food. He even took to dangling food into his stomach on a length of string, so he could later pull it out and examine how much if had been digested.

These grotesque if informative experiments continued on and off for over a decade. One might assume that St. Martin obliged to take part out of a sense of gratitude to the enterprising doctor, but the truth is rather less touching. In fact, the woodsman was almost illiterate and Beaumont had effectively tricked him into signing a contract to work as a servant.

Apart from functioning as a sort of living x-ray for his master, St. Martin was not spared from everyday chores. Beaumont wrote in his journal, “During this time, in the intervals of experimenting, he performed all the duties of a common servant, chopping wood, carrying burthens, with little or no suffering or inconvenience from his wound.”

In 1838 Beaumont published his findings in the paper “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion,” and shortly afterwards he parted ways with his subject and servant St. Martin, who returned to St-Thomas de Joliette, Quebec, Canada.

When Alexis St. Martin eventually died, a lot of scientists were eager to perform an autopsy on this extraordinary medical specimen, and the eminent physician Sir William Osler even wanted to place his stomach in the Army Medical Museum in Washington DC; but his family were so opposed to all this that they allowed his body to decay considerably before burying him, successfully preventing him from becoming yet another subject of experimentation.