William Beaumont

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William Beaumont
William Beaumont
Born(1785-11-21)November 21, 1785
DiedApril 25, 1853(1853-04-25) (aged 67)
Resting placeBellefontaine Cemetery
Known forResearch on digestion
Scientific career

William Beaumont (November 21, 1785 – April 25, 1853) was a surgeon in the U.S. Army who became known as the "Father of Gastric Physiology" for his research on human digestion on Alexis St. Martin.[1][2]

Early life[edit]

William Beaumont and family

William Beaumont was born to Samuel Beaumont and Lucretia Abel in Lebanon, Connecticut; his father was a farmer.[3] He left his home after he turned twenty-one, moved to Champlain, New York and obtained a teaching job. In 1810 he relocated to St. Albans, Vermont, where he trained to become a physician through an apprenticeship with Dr. Truman Powell. In June 1812, the Third Medical Society of the State of Vermont in Burlington examined his knowledge "on the anatomy of the human body, and the theory and practice of physic and surgery" and recommended him as "judicious and safe practitioner in the different avocations of the medical profession."[4]

From 1812 until 1815, Beaumont served as an assistant surgeon in the Army during the War of 1812, participating in the Battle of Plattsburgh.[4] After the war ended, he started a private practice in Plattsburgh, New York, but by 1820, Beaumont had rejoined the Army as a surgeon. He was assigned a location at Fort Mackinac. Beaumont took a leave in 1821 and married Deborah "Debby" Green Platt in Plattsburgh before returning to his post. Deborah was divorced from Nathaniel Platt, whose uncle Zephaniah Platt founded Plattsburgh after the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Her father, Israel Green, was a third cousin of General Nathanael Greene.[5]

Experiments with St. Martin[edit]

From Beaumont's Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, 1838 (p. 27)

On June 6, 1822, an employee of the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island named Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach at close range by the discharge of a shotgun loaded with buckshot that injured his ribs and his stomach.[3]: 102  Beaumont treated his wound, but expected St. Martin to die from his injuries.[6] Despite this dire prediction, St. Martin survived – but with a hole, or fistula, in his stomach that never fully healed. Unable to continue work for the American Fur Company, he was hired as a handyman by Beaumont.[7][2]

By August 1825, Beaumont had been relocated to Fort Niagara in New York, and St. Martin went with him. Beaumont recognized that he had in St. Martin an unusual opportunity to observe digestive processes. Beaumont began to perform experiments on digestion using St. Martin's stomach. Most of the experiments were conducted by tying a piece of food to a string and inserting it through the hole into the stomach. Every few hours, Beaumont would remove the food and observe how well it had been digested. Beaumont also extracted a sample of gastric acid from St. Martin's stomach for analysis. In September, St. Martin ran away from Beaumont and moved to Canada, leaving Beaumont to concentrate on his duties as an army surgeon, but Beaumont had St. Martin caught so Beaumont could continue to exhibit him.

Beaumont also used samples of stomach acid taken out of St. Martin to "digest" bits of food in cups. This led to the important discovery that the stomach acid, and not solely the mashing, pounding, and squeezing of the stomach, digests the food into nutrients the stomach can use; in other words, digestion was primarily a chemical process and not a mechanical one.[8]

During 1826 and 1827, Beaumont was stationed at Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1828 he was transferred to St. Louis, Missouri. While en route, St. Martin was ordered to stop at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to serve as Beaumont's handyman again. In early 1831, Beaumont conducted another set of experiments on St. Martin's stomach, ranging from the simple observation of normal digestion to the effects that temperature, exercise, and even emotions have on the digestive process.[9]

Beaumont published the account of his experiments in 1838 as Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion.[10] He and St. Martin parted ways, with Beaumont eventually returning to St. Louis and St. Martin to his home in Quebec province, Canada. On and off for the next twenty years, Beaumont tried to get St. Martin to move to St. Louis, but the move never occurred.[11]


Beaumont died in 1853 at the age of 67 in St. Louis, Missouri, as a result of slipping on ice-covered steps. He was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery.[12]

His papers are held at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine Library,[13] and copies are held at the National Library of Medicine.[1][14]


Several institutions are named after William Beaumont, including:

In popular culture[edit]

  • Beaumont's experiments on St. Martin were featured in the April 2, 2012, episode of Radiolab.[18]
  • William Beaumont's experiments on Alexis St. Martin were featured in the episode of Dark Matters: Twisted But True that aired on August 1, 2012.
  • A fictionalized history of the complicated doctor–patient relationship between Beaumont and his patient St. Martin was recreated in a novel, Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont (2011).[19]
  • Beaumont's experiments on St Martin were featured on the podcast "The Dollop with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds" in episode 33, The Stomach Men (November 15, 2014).[20]
  • The relationship between Beaumont and St. Martin and Beaumont's experiments on St. Martin are recounted by Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin McElroy on their medical podcast Sawbones in the May 13, 2015, episode The Gut Hole Romance, hosted by the Maximum Fun network.[21]
  • The story of Beaumont's treatment of and experiments on St. Martin was reenacted on the medical drama Medic, which aired on February 27, 1956.[22]
  • A play centered around Beaumont's relationship with St. Martin was published by playwright Alexander Attea in 2022 and experienced a reading at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, Illinois in the same year.[23][24]

Selected writings[edit]


  1. ^ a b William Beaumont Papers (1812–1959), National Library of Medicine
  2. ^ Kelly, Howard A.; Burrage, Walter L. (eds.). "Beaumont, William" . American Medical Biographies . Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company.
  3. ^ a b Myer, Jesse S. (editor) (1912). Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont. St. Louis: C. V. Mosby Company. ISBN 978-0-8016-0535-2. {{cite book}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  4. ^ a b Dempster, James Herbert. Pathfinders of Physiology, The Deitroit Medical Journal Company, 1914, p. 25.
  5. ^ "William Beaumont Family Genealogy". www.james.com.
  6. ^ Beaumont, William (1838). Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. Edinburgh: Maclachlan and Stewart. ISBN 978-0-486-69213-5.
  7. ^ Harré, Rom (1981). Great Scientific Experiments. Phaidon (Oxford). pp. 39–47. ISBN 978-0-7148-2096-5.
  8. ^ "William Beaumont Biography - life, family, death, young, book, information, born, house, time". www.notablebiographies.com.
  9. ^ Martin, Deborah Beaumont (1921). "Doctor William Beaumont: His Life in Mackinac and Wisconsin, 1820-1834". The Wisconsin Magazine of History. 4 (3): 263–280. JSTOR 4630308.
  10. ^ Beaumont, William (1929). Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. Dover Publications. ISBN 9780486605272.
  11. ^ "The Gruesome Medical Breakthrough of Dr. William Beaumont on Mackinac Island". MyNorth.com. May 18, 2017.
  12. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on February 2, 2021. Retrieved March 18, 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ "Search". digitalcommons.wustl.edu.
  14. ^ Pizer, IH (1964). "Source Materials and the Library: The Dispersion of the Beaumont Papers". Bull Med Libr Assoc. 52 (1): 328–36. PMC 198118. PMID 14119306.
  15. ^ "William Beaumont Elementary School, Waterford, Michigan".
  16. ^ "Plattsburgh State Summer Update". Plattsburgh State Office of College Relations. 18 July 1973. Retrieved 17 January 2019.
  17. ^ "Antarctica Detail". geonames.usgs.gov.
  18. ^ Radiolab: "Guts: Holey Cow." WNYC, April 2, 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-30.
  19. ^ Abigail Zuger, M.D. Doctor and Patient, Bound by Mutual Dependency, The New York Times, November 28, 2011.
  20. ^ Carla (Jun 5, 2015). "Episode 33: Dollop: The Stomach Men » The Dollop Dot Net".
  21. ^ Sawbones: "The Gut Hole Romance." May 13, 2014.
  22. ^ [1] IMDB
  23. ^ "Alexander Attea: GUT". International Museum of Surgical Science. 2022-04-08. Retrieved 2023-09-16.
  24. ^ "Gut | New Play Exchange". newplayexchange.org. Retrieved 2023-09-16.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]