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Dr. Beaumont and "the man with the lid on his stomach"

by Diana Bradley, Staff Writer | November 11, 2011
From the November 2011 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine


Along with observing normal digestion, Beaumont examined the effects of weather, exercise and even emotions on the digestive process. His methods involved inserting string-suspended food into St. Martin’s fistula and withdrawing it one, two and three hours later to analyze the digestion process of different foods at various stages. The quarter ounce pieces of food comprised of raw beef, raw pork, stale bread, raw cabbage, and on one occasion he placed twelve raw oysters directly in St. Martin’s stomach. He chemically analyzed samples of St. Martin’s gastric juices, both in and outside of his stomach in test tubes; this led him to discover that gastric juice requires heat to digest -- proving digestion is primarily a chemical process and not mechanical.

Coincidentally, prior to St. Martin, Beaumont had no formal training in physiology or gastroenterology. Born November 21, 1785 into a Lebanon, Conn.-based farming family, Beaumont decided to pursue medicine aged 25. After two years as a physician's apprentice under Dr. Benjamin Chandler and Dr. Truman Powell in St. Albans, Vt., the Third Medical Society of Vermont certified him to practice “Physic and Surgery” in June 1812. Soon after, Beaumont enlisted as a U.S. Army surgeon's mate in the War of 1812 and was assigned to the Sixth Infantry Regiment in Plattsburgh, N.Y. until 1815. It was as a post surgeon in the Army where he fatefully encountered St. Martin years later.

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Some deem Beaumont’s tests ethically questionable. Mocking crowds nicknamed St. Martin “the man with the lid on his stomach,” and a 1953 article in the Milwaukee Journal reports that Beaumont “lifted [St. Martin’s] lid hundreds of times to make amazing discoveries about the processes of digestion.” St. Martin would periodically disappear and experiments often left him irritable and stressed. In his own journal, Beaumont recorded St. Martin “complaining of considerable distress and uneasiness at the stomach, general debility and lassitude, with some pain in his head.” St. Martin, though, must have been aware of his value to Beaumont. In 1832, the physician wanted St. Martin to sign a one-year contract – he wouldn’t comply until Beaumont agreed to pay him at least $150, along with room, board and clothing as part of the deal, which stated that St. Martin was to “obey, suffer and comply with all reasonable and proper orders or experiments.” In May 1833, after the death of one of St. Martin’s children, he left for Canada and they never saw each other again.

Fortunately, it wasn’t all for nothing. Eventually, the experiments led to Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1833) a book that had a powerful influence back in the medical centers of Europe.

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