One of the most bizarre stories regarding the discoveries made regarding the digestive system comes from the tale of William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin.
For the uninitiated this story charts the massive leaps that William Beaumont made in the understanding of the digestive system. Prior to this incident very little was truly known. It is thanks to this peculiar piece of biological history that we have made advances:
Taken from Wikipedia
On June 6, 1822, an employee of the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island, named Alexis St. Martin, was accidentally shot in the stomach by a discharge of a shotgun loaded with a buck shot from close range that injured his ribs and his stomach. Dr. Beaumont treated his wound, but expected St. Martin to die from his injuries.
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 Dr. Beaumont.
By August 1825, Beaumont had been relocated to Fort Niagara in New York, and Alexis St. Martin had come with him. Beaumont recognized that he had in St. Martin the unique opportunity to observe digestive processes. Dr. Beaumont began to perform experiments on digestion using the stomach of St. Martin.
Most of the experiments were conducted by tying a piece of food to a string and inserting it through the hole into St. Martin's 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, Alexis St. Martin left Dr. Beaumont and moved to Canada, leaving Beaumont to concentrate on his duties as an army surgeon. 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.
During 1826 and 1827, Dr. Beaumont was stationed at Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In 1828 he was transferred to St. Louis, Missouri. While en route to St. Louis, Alexis St.Martin was ordered to stop at Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin to serve as Dr.Beaumont's handyman again. In early 1831, Dr. 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.
Beaumont published the account of his experiments in 1838, as Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion. He and St. Martin parted ways, with Beaumont eventually going to St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Martin to his home in Quebec province, Canada. Off and on for the next twenty years, Beaumont tried to get St. Martin to move to St. Louis, but the move never occurred. Beaumont died in 1853 as a result of slipping on ice-covered steps.
The fact that prior to this incident it was believed that digestion was a mechanical ‘crushing’ process not a chemical process, shows how much this solitary moment moved treatment on. It is frightening to consider how long we may have laboured under that mistaken belief.
We are sure that most long term IBS sufferers will agree that there is much to be done, in this field, but we must at least thank William Beaumont and Alexis St.Martin for the help there work gave us.
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