William Beaumont

The American surgeon William Beaumont (1785-1853) is remembered for extensive studies of the human digestive system based on experiments on a live patient.

William Beaumont was born in Lebanon, Conn., on Nov. 21, 1785. He grew up on the family farm and attended village schools until 1806, when he left to become the village schoolmaster in Champlain, N.Y. He began studying medicine in his spare time, and in 1810 he became an apprentice to a doctor in Vermont. While still a student, he began a lifelong habit of keeping a journal describing daily events and the symptoms and treatment of patients. After his apprenticeship Beaumont served as a surgeon's mate in the War of 1812. He described in his journal grueling days and nights spent treating the wounded.

After the war Beaumont returned to private practice in Plattsburg, N.Y. In 1820 he reenlisted as an army surgeon and was sent to Fort Mackinac, Michigan Territory. His account of the journey contains vivid descriptions of the voyage along the recently completed Erie Canal and through the Canadian wilderness. He was the only doctor in the territory, and his practice included soldiers and their families, Native Americans, trappers, and settlers. In 1821 Beaumont returned briefly to Plattsburgh and married Deborah Platt.

On June 6, 1822, when Alexis St. Martin, a young Canadian, suffered a stomach wound in a hunting accident, Beaumont was called to treat him. He described the terrible wound: "The whole charge, consisting of powder and duck shot, was received in the left side at not more than two or three feet distance from the muzzle of the piece … carrying away by its force integuments more than the size of the palm of a man's hand." With Beaumont's skillful surgery and subsequent care, St. Martin recovered but was left with a permanent opening in his stomach. When authorities threatened to send the young convalescent back to Canada, Beaumont supported him in his own house for several years. During this time he was able to study the digestive process by examining the interior of the patient's stomach as various foods were ingested. Beaumont's observations and chemical analyses of gastric juices provided the foundations for conclusions which are still valid.

In 1824, when Beaumont was transferred to Fort Niagara, N.Y., he attempted to take St. Martin with him, but the young man returned to Canada. President John Quincy Adams promoted Beaumont to the rank of surgeon in 1826. He served at Green Bay, Wis., and later at Fort Crawford, Wis. Meanwhile, he had finally persuaded St. Martin to come to Fort Crawford for further experiments, but his plans to take his patient to Europe for demonstrations and study were interrupted by an outbreak of cholera. Later in 1832 Beaumont used a 6-month furlough to take St. Martin to Washington, D.C., for an extensive series of experiments. Both the surgeon general and the secretary of war supported the project with funds and facilities, and they even enlisted St. Martin in the army as sergeant in exchange for his cooperation. These experiments led to Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1833).

Beaumont had additional experiments in mind, but St. Martin returned to Canada forever in 1834. Beaumont's last post was in St. Louis, Mo., where he remained the rest of his life. After his retirement in 1840, he continued private practice until his death in March 1853.


Further Reading on William Beaumont

No biography of Beaumont supersedes Jesse S. Myer, Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont (1912). Valuable references are the introduction by Sir William Osler to the 1941 reprint of the 1833 edition of Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion; Genevieve Miller's prefatory comments to her edition of William Beaumont's Formative Years: Two Early Notebooks, 1811-1821 (1946); and the relevant selections in Scott Earle, ed., Surgery in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (1965). See also Richard H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (1936; rev. ed. 1947) and Medicine and Society in America, 1660-1860 (1960).