America’s First Physiologist, William Beaumont, M.D.

William Beaumont, Pioneer of Gastrointestinal Research

A fur trader who suffered an accidental gunshot wound in 1822 and the physician who treated him provided the opportunity for the research leading to our early knowledge about how the digestive system works. 

Army physician William Beaumont was stationed at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island in Michigan in the early 1820s. The army facility, established to protect the interests of the American Fur Company, became the refuge for a fur trader named Alexis St. Martin who was accidentally shot in the abdomen at close range on June 6, 1822.  It was a serious wound—St. Martin’s stomach was perforated, several of his ribs were broken, and the shot blew off several muscle fragments. Beaumont didn’t expect St. Martin to survive, but the fur trader surprised him. Over the next year, St. Martin healed remarkably, but the skin around the wound fused to the hole in his stomach, leaving a permanent opening called a gastric fistula.

Beaumont treated St. Martin for three years and realized that the gastric fistula enabled first hand observations on the then unknown physiological processes that guide the digestive system.  To gain insight about this vital function, Beaumont performed a series of 238 experiments on St. Martin intermittently over an eight-year period. In all, experiments were conducted at four different rustic military outposts spanning the unsettled Great Lakes region to the East Coast. Twice, Beaumont had to convince the reluctant St. Martin to return from Canada to his frontier lab to continue the experiments.  Many of these experiments involved inserting bits of different foods tied to strings through the hole in St. Martin’s stomach, pulling them out periodically to observe digestion. Beaumont also removed gastric juice, examining it to better understand its nature.

Beaumont’s observations, published in 1833 in a lengthy book entitled “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion,” form the basis of much of the early knowledge on digestion. Many of his observations have proven true with today’s more sophisticated research techniques.

For example, Beaumont discovered that hydrochloric acid is the main chemical responsible for breaking down food. He proposed the existence of a second important digestive chemical, which scientists now know is the enzyme pepsin. His experiments “digesting” food in a cup with St. Martin’s extracted gastric juices showed that digestion is a chemical process, not merely a mechanical one caused by stomach muscle movement. His work also provided insights on how emotions, temperature, and physical activity can affect digestion.

Beaumont died in 1853 as a result of slipping on ice-covered steps and St. Martin, with his unusual wound which never healed, ended up outliving Beaumont and fathering numerous children.

From performing such intensive investigations in America’s early days, Beaumont is now recognized as America’s first physiologist. Three hospitals in Michigan are named after this physician-scientist as well as the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in El Paso, Texas.

Editor’s note:  This article is derived from a presentation made at Experimental Biology 2013 by Jay Dean, Ph.D., of the University of South Florida, Richard Rogers, Ph.D., of Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University, and Patrick Lambert, Ph.D., of Creighton University. Their talk was entitled, “William Beaumont: America’s First Physiologist and Pioneer of Gastrointestinal Research.”