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An Early Nineteenth Century American Medical Man

Nature volume 160, page 38 (12 July 1947) | Download Citation



Of all men who have made really important contributions to the science of physiology, William Beaumont was perhaps the only one who carried out the whole of his researches on a single patient. Born in 1785 in Lebanon, Connecticut, Beaumont eventually obtained a licence to practise medicine and enlisted as a surgeon in the U.S. Army. Ten years later—in 1822—while he was serving at Fort Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, an accident happened in the local store. A gun had been accidentally discharged, and a young French-Canadian had received terrible injuries from buckshot in his left side. This man, Alexis St. Martin, is surely the most famous of all patients. His recovery was slow and he was left with a gastric fistula. After ten months the authorities decided to wash their hands of him, and Beaumont took him under his own personal care. From time to time St. Martin escaped and led his own life, but he frequently returned. The relationship between doctor and patient was not broken until 1844. Beaumont saw soon after the development of the fistula the possibility of using St. Martin as a human laboratory. In 1833 he published at his own expense the work entitled “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion”. It is one of the great classics of physiology.

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