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Accidental Gunshot Wound Leads to Medical Advances

1800s | July 4, 2018


Illustration depicting Dr. William Beaumont (1785-1853) experimenting with digestive juice by tapping a fistule into the stomach of Alexis St. Martin. Undated colored drawing. (Getty Images)

When a 1820s fur trapper was accidentally shot in the stomach, his gunshot wound provided doctors with a window into the mysterious inner-workings of the human body…literally! 

St. Martin was Accidentally Shot in the Abdomen

Alexis St. Martin was a 19-year old French-Canadian fur trapper on Michigan’s Mackinaw Island when another trapper’s gun misfired on June 6, 1822, and caught St. Martin in the abdomen. The wound looked horrific…one lung was protruding from the gaping hole!...and the island’s doctor, physiologist William Beaumont, didn’t expect St. Martin to last through the night.

Medicine in the 1820s -- and in a place as remote as Mackinaw Island -- was limited. Dr. Beaumont, an army doctor, performed surgery on young St. Martin without using any anesthesia and without antiseptics to sterilize the surgical instruments. To everyone’s surprise, St. Martin pulled through. The problem was there was still a gaping hole going right into his stomach. 

Alexis St. Martin (Michigan's Otherside)

The Wound Left St. Martin with a Porthole Into His Stomach

After several attempts to surgically close the hole, known as a fistula, St. Martin put his foot down. Surgery without painkillers was no fun, and St. Martin had had enough. The fistula remained open. The flesh around it had healed and the strong stomach acids kept the area disinfected from the inside out, so St. Martin was left with a porthole into his stomach.

He was also left unemployed. Because he could no longer work as a fur trapper, Dr. Beaumont hired him to work as a handyman. It was a convenient arrangement; now Dr. Beaumont could do daily cleanings of St. Martin’s fistula. This is when Dr. Beaumont was struck with an ingenious idea. He could watch…through the fistula porthole…the workings of St. Martin’s stomach. He had a view from the inside. 

St. Martin Became a Medical Guinea Pig

St. Martin then became Dr. Beaumont’s human guinea pig. The doctor meticulously recorded everything that St. Martin ate and then he watched as the stomach acids broke down the food and digested the nutrients. This was the first time anyone had observed the inner workings of the human stomach. His observations debunked several long-held beliefs about human digestions and medical diagnosis.

For example, many doctors at that time believed that the stomach muscles ground up the food into little bits, like sandpaper rubbing together. Dr. Beaumont’s observations showed that the stomach produces acids that break down the food. He observed that certain foods St. Martin ate made his stomach produce more acid, while others made it produce less acid. He also noted that whenever St. Martin had a fever, his digestive process would slow down. Dr. Beaumont was the first to connect the digestive process with illness.  

Dr. William Beaumont (Wikipedia)

Dr. Beaumont's Work War Revolutionary

Dr. Beaumont’s groundbreaking observations helped to change the way medical patients were diagnosed. At that time, doctors based their diagnosis of a patient on what they knew about the functions of the body…and that information was often a century or two old. Doctors made medical diagnoses without even looking at the patient. Dr. Beaumont’s experience helped revolutionize a new approach to practicing medicine. He advocated that a doctor observe and collect information on the patient before determining a diagnosis. This is laughably obvious now, but in the early 1800s, it was considered radical, new-age medicine. It was quick to catch on, though. 

Dr. Beaumont's Work Influenced Ivan Pavlov

Dr. Beaumont’s observations of St. Martin paved the way for controlled animal experimentation in the name of science. To truly see and understand how the different systems of the body functioned together, physiologists made surgical fistulas on animals and recorded the data they collected. In fact, Dr. Beaumont’s work inspired the well-known Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov operated on dogs to create fistulas before conducting his famous experiments on classic conditioning that demonstrated how dogs could learn to salivate on cue. 

St. Martin Went Back to Fur Trapping

As for St. Martin, he resumed his fur trapping vocation for several years before settling down to become a farmer. Despite his near-death gunshot wound and open fistula, St. Martin lived to be 83 years old. His contributions to the advancement of medical knowledge at the expense of his personal comfort should be applauded. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.