The Man With A Hole In His Stomach, And The Doctor Who Licked Inside It For Science

Picture of Alexis St Martin from 'Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont' by Jesse Shire Myer. Image credit: Public Domain

Long before things like "ethics" and "not wanting to cause gross distress and/or injury to subjects" were a thing, scientists and medics alike still needed to learn stuff. Many things, in fact, given that they were still doing things like using butt plugs as a remedy for headaches and blowing smoke up people's anuses to cure drowning.

One such tale – which you'll be pleased to know takes place a little higher up this time – gave us valuable insights into how the human body worked, at the expense of a man who had to walk around with an extra hole in his body until the day he died.

Alexis St Martin was an 18-year-old fur trader from Canada, who was at a trading post on Mackinac Island in 1822 when a duck hunter accidentally shot him in the stomach at point-blank range. He was so close, in fact, that his shirt caught on fire, not that fashion was a priority right at that moment given that a wound of this type was nearly always fatal. 

Fortunately, or unfortunately given what was about to happen to him, an army hospital was nearby, where one Dr William Beaumont worked. Remarkably, Beaumont was able to save St Martin's life. But – and it's a big but – he was left with a hole that went from his outside to his insides, a quality you usually only really want from a mouth.

The shot, as well as blowing off part of his ribs and muscles about the "size of a man's hand", went from his side into his stomach, leaving a gaping hole. He was, of course, bled as a treatment. Back then the solution to bleeding was often "make them bleed more blood". He was given drugs, but unfortunately, this didn't help, given that the medicine "escaped from the stomach through the wound", which also happened with food. Essentially, if you put food in his mouth, out it would plop from his stomach a few moments later like a Pez candy dispenser.

Engraving of the hole by Dr William Beaumont from his book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, 1833. Image credit: Public Domain

Over the next few weeks St Martin healed and food began to stay in, but the wound did not close properly. The edges of his stomach fused to the wound, making a little window directly into his stomach.

At this sight, which might make you or I feel pity, Beaumont's eyes lit up like a cartoon dog's eyes turning to dollar signs (probably). Digestion at this time was very poorly understood. We didn't know about gastric juices and believed that most of the work digesting the food in the stomach was done by a churning, pounding motion of the stomach itself.

This hole gave the doctor the opportunity to find out what was going on in there, and fortunately for him (but not for St Martin), the patient was in no condition to go back to being a fur trader. Beaumont was able to keep him around by paying him to do "all the duties of a common servant", on the condition that he would be allowed to have a dig around in the hole whenever he felt like doing so.

Beaumont watched the digestion happen in St Martin's stomach when he ate, or else let him eat food and retrieved it later from the hole to see how much digestion had taken place. As well as this, he would place food in a mesh and then dip it into St Martin like a fancy tea bag. He even had a bit of a lick of the inside of St Martin's stomach, finding that the acid taste wasn't there until it started digesting food.

Reportedly, the two did not get on; a personality clash that probably wasn't helped by one of them occasionally licking the contents of another. Despite Beaumont referring to St Martin's children as “live stock” and calling St Martin ugly, the relationship went on for years. 

Though ethically a bit iffy (alright, maybe very iffy), Beaumont did discover that it was gastric juices in the stomach that digested food. He became known as the "Father of Gastric Physiology", though he never did close St Martin's wound as promised.

Beaumont died in 1853. His family allowed his body to decompose before burial, fearing that doctors may dig it up to have a poke around for themselves. Which sounds a little over the top, until you remember the licking.

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