Odd experiments by 'America's first physiologist' shed light on digestion

April 24, 2013, American Physiological Society

A fur trader who suffered an accidental gunshot wound in 1822 and the physician who saw this unfortunate incidence as an opportunity for research are key to much of our early knowledge about the workings of the digestive system, say speakers of an upcoming symposium.

These speakers—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—will give their symposium presentation entitled, "William Beaumont: America's First Physiologist and Pioneer of Gastrointestinal Research," at the Experimental Biology 2013 meeting, being held April 20-24, 2013 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Boston, Mass. The symposium is sponsored by the (APS), a co-sponsor of the event.

Food on Strings

Dean, a physiologist who studies the that control heart rate and breathing and an amateur historian, explains that 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 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.

"As Beaumont tended to St. Martin over the next three years, he realized that this was really a serendipitous event," Dean says. "It dawned on him that there could be a research opportunity in this."

At the time, Dean explains, not much was known about digestion. 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.

Seizing the Opportunity

Beaumont's observations, published in1833 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, Dean says.

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.

From performing such intensive investigation in America's early days, Beaumont is now recognized as America's first physiologist, Dean says. Today, numerous hospitals are named after this physician-scientist.

Despite St. Martin's unusual wound, which never healed, he ended up outliving Beaumont and fathering numerous children.

Much of Beaumont's success relied on seizing an unexpected break, Dean says. "St. Martin ended up becoming Beaumont's living laboratory," Dean adds. "He recognized an opportunity that hadn't been planned on and exploited it to gain important knowledge, something good scientists often do today."

Explore further: Beaumont doctors call for training to reduce sudden cardiac arrest fatalities in schools

Related Stories

Beaumont doctors call for training to reduce sudden cardiac arrest fatalities in schools

March 28, 2013
One of the leading causes of death in the United States is sudden cardiac arrest, which claims the lives of more than 325,000 people each year. In a study published in the April issue of the journal Resuscitation, Beaumont ...

Cystic fibrosis breakthrough reveals why females fare worse than males

June 8, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Cystic Fibrosis (CF) is the most common life-threatening inherited disease in Ireland with the highest incidence of this disease globally seen on this island. Females with CF have a poorer outcome as a ...

Human ancestors used fire one million years ago, archaeologist find

April 2, 2012
An international team led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University has identified the earliest known evidence of the use of fire by human ancestors. Microscopic traces of wood ash, alongside animal bones and stone ...

Recommended for you

Best of Last Year—The top Medical Xpress articles of 2017

December 20, 2017
It was a good year for medical research as a team at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, found that dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Any exercise helps, the team found, but dancing ...

Pickled in 'cognac', Chopin's heart gives up its secrets

November 26, 2017
The heart of Frederic Chopin, among the world's most cherished musical virtuosos, may finally have given up the cause of his untimely death.

Sugar industry withheld evidence of sucrose's health effects nearly 50 years ago

November 21, 2017
A U.S. sugar industry trade group appears to have pulled the plug on a study that was producing animal evidence linking sucrose to disease nearly 50 years ago, researchers argue in a paper publishing on November 21 in the ...

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.