Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Alexis St. Martin

On June 6, 1822 Alexis St. Martin was working at a fur-trading post in Mackinac Island in Lake Huron when he was accidentally shot with a musket at close range. The charge of the musket-shot blew a fist-sized hole through his side and into his stomach.

William Beaumont, a US Army surgeon stationed at a nearby army post, treated the wound. Although St. Martin was a healthy 28-year-old, he was not expected to recover due to the severity of his wound. Beaumont explains in a later paper that the shot blew off fragments of St. Martin's muscles and broke a few of his ribs. After bleeding him and giving him a cathartic, Beaumont marked St. Martin's progress. For the next 17 days, all food he ate reemerged from his new gastric fistula (an abnormal passage from an internal organ to the body surface). Finally after 17 days, the food began to stay in St. Martin's stomach and his bowels began to return to their natural functions. When the wound healed itself, the edge of the hole in the stomach had attached itself to the edge of the hole in the skin, creating a permanent gastric fistula. There was very little scientific understanding of digestion at the time, and Beaumont recognized the opportunity he had in St. Martin - he could literally watch the processes of digestion by dangling food on a string into St. Martin's stomach, then later pulling it out to observe to what extent it had been digested. Beaumont continued to experiment on St. Martin off and on until 1833.

Alexis St. Martin did not allow the experiments to be conducted as an act to repay Beaumont for keeping him alive, but rather because Beaumont got the illiterate St. Martin to sign a contract to work as a servant. Beaumont recalls the chores St. Martin did: "During this time, in the intervals of experimenting, he performed all the duties of a common servant, chopping wood, carrying burthens, etc. with little or no suffering or inconvenience from his wound." Although these chores were not bothersome, some of the experiments were painful to St. Martin, for example when Beaumont had placed sacks of food in the stomach, Beaumont noted: “the boy complained of some pain and uneasiness at the breast.” Other symptoms St. Martin felt during experiments were a sense of weight and distress at the scrobiculus cordis; slight vertigo and dimness of vision.
When Alexis St. Martin died at St. Thomas de Joliette, Quebec in 1880, his family delayed his burial until the body began to decompose, in order to prevent his “resurrection” by medical men. Many of the latter were interested in performing an autopsy and there was even interest in obtaining the stomach for the Army Medical base in Africa.


(Today they do the same thing on cows by design. They are called Fistulated Cows)