Accidental Gunshot Wound Leads to Medical Advances

By | June 29, 2018

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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. 

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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.