Weird Wednesdays: The Canadian Saint of Digestion

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Illustration by Alicia Fitzmaurice

Though Alexis St. Martin was never canonized by any sort of church, he was definitely holier than most people.

Just not in the sense you’d think.

The Canadian fur trader was minding his own business on Mackinac Island, Michigan, in the year of 1822. Suddenly, a shot rang out-- someone had accidentally misfired a musket, hitting St. Martin in the stomach, just below his left breast.

The 20-year-old was rushed to a nearby military outpost to the care of the only doctor of the island, a Connecticut-born man named William Beaumont. Upon examination, Beaumont found that the gunshot had made a hole about the size of a forefinger in St. Martin’s abdominal cavity.

Bits of the boy’s breakfast, along with what Beaumont described as St. Martin’s lung, were hanging out of the wound. The blast itself has broken a few ribs, and Beaumont declared the situation hopeless.

However, as a doctor, he had an obligation to try and save his patient while St. Martin still lived. Beaumont cut off a bit of St. Martin’s rib with a penknife, poked the lung back into the thoracic cavity, applied some ointment and hoped for the best.

Against the odds, St. Martin survived. Despite suffering from pneumonia and gastric juices/botched feeding attempts falling out of his stomach hole (which the good doctor circumvented by giving St. Martin nutrients through anal injections-- yum) the young, former fur trapper lived.

St. Martin a man who contributed to the scientific community by participating in experiments with Connecticut born doctor William Beaumont (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Common)

With a catch.

The hole, though it no longer allowed food to fall out, never fully closed over. Instead, it formed a fistula-- the outside skin attached itself to the inner tissue of the abdominal cavity, essentially forming a tube looking into St. Martin’s stomach.

This understandably put a damper on several things for St. Martin, including eating spicy Mexican food, finding dates and continuing to work as a fur trapper.

Beaumont hired St. Martin as a servant, partly out of sympathy and the need to clean St. Martin’s stomach hole at least once a day. While a bandage kept the boy’s food inside, the hole still provided a window into his gastric cavity.

A window, Beaumont realized, of opportunity.

At the time, not much about the digestive system was known. Ethical laws and moral barriers generally prevented doctors from performing autopsies on deceased patients-- and corpses couldn’t really give much insight into the function of a living digestive tract in any case. Surgeries on the stomach and alimentary canal, in an age without anesthetic or proper sterilization techniques (or even a proper germ theory, which was only proposed in 1850s) resulted in the patient nearly always dying.

St. Martin’s situation was a one-in-a-million occurrence, Beaumont realized, and he would take advantage of it to the fullest extent.

From 1825 to 1833, Beaumont conducted several experiments on his servant’s gastric cavity. He collected samples of the gastric juices and, through tests run by chemists, confirmed that the main digestive juice found in the stomach was hydrochloric acid.

He recorded the temperature of the stomach and watched various foodstuffs as they were digested-- sometimes after St. Martin ate them conventionally and by dangling food from a string into the hole.

Though St. Martin gave permission for Beaumont to conduct the experiments, he was fairly resentful of the doctor. He complained of his chest hurting and vertigo during the experiments. Beaumont persisted, however, until the two parted ways after years of experiments.

Beaumont published the results of his testing, later retiring to private practice and enjoying the prestige his research brought him. His gastric experiments on St. Martin produced data on stomach movement, the digestibility of various materials and the biological process of digestion, as well as the effects of various ailments (such as feverishness, which St. Martin complained of frequently) on gastric function.

Surprisingly, St. Martin outlived Beaumont by a good 27 years, working as a trapper and, for a stretch of time, as a circus attraction. When Beaumont died in 1853 after slipping on some ice, St. Martin kept a tenuous correspondence with the doctor’s son, Israel.

After the hole-y man died in 1880 at the ripe old age of 78, his family opted to leave out his remains for a while to decompose, to prevent any other doctors with ideas from digging up the body for further experiments. He’s currently buried in Saint Thomas Parish Cemetery in Canada, about 8 feet under with a layer of rocks, just for good measure.

The moral of the story is: Always look on the bright side of a situation, because when a door closes, sometimes a window is opened; and, occasionally, it happens to be into your internal organs.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.