front cover of Frontier Doctor
Frontier Doctor
William Beaumont, America's First Great Medical Scientist
Reginald Horsman
University of Missouri Press, 1996

In Frontier Doctor, Reginald Horsman provides the first modern, scholarly biography of a colorful backwoods doctor whose pioneering research on human digestion gained him international renown as a physiologist. Before William Beaumont's work, there was still considerable controversy as to the nature of human digestion; his research established beyond a doubt that digestion is a chemical process.

Beaumont received his medical training as an apprentice in a small town in Vermont and served as a surgeon's mate in the War of 1812. After the war, he practiced in Plattsburgh, New York, before making his career as an army surgeon. His chance for fame came in 1822, when he was serving at the lonely post of Fort Mackinac in Michigan Territory. A Canadian voyageur--Alexis St. Martin--was accidentally shot in the stomach at close range, and his wound healed in such a way as to leave a permanent opening. This enabled Beaumont to insert food directly into the stomach, to siphon gastric juice, and to experiment on the process of digestion both inside and outside the stomach.

Because Beaumont had considerable difficulty in persuading St. Martin to stay with him so he could continue his research, his study was carried out sporadically over a number of years. In the early 1830s, with the support of Joseph Lovell, the surgeon general of the army, Beaumont and St. Martin went to the East Coast, where additional experiments were carried out. In 1833, Beaumont published Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, a book based upon his research on St. Martin and the work upon which his reputation primarily rests. His observations revealed more about digestion in the human stomach than had ever before been known, and his work was immediately praised in both the United States and Europe.

After he left the army, Beaumont established a successful private practice in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent the latter part of his life. Beaumont, a fascinating, argumentative character, was often engaged in public controversy. He was also good friends with several notable men, including the young Robert E. Lee.

Frontier Doctor sheds welcome new light on the state of medicine both inside and outside the army in the early nineteenth century and provides absorbing information on the early experi-ments that set the research into human digestion irrevocably on the right course.


front cover of Open Wound
Open Wound
The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont
Jason Karlawish
University of Michigan Press, 2013

A shotgun misfires inside the American Fur Company store in Northern Michigan, and Alexis St. Martin's death appears imminent. It's 1822, and, as the leaders of Mackinac Island examine St. Martin's shot-riddled torso, they decide not to incur a single expense on behalf of the indentured fur trapper. They even go so far as to dismiss the attention of U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon William Beaumont, the frontier fort's only doctor.

Beaumont ignores the orders and saves the young man's life. What neither the doctor nor his patient understands—yet—is that even as Beaumont's care of St. Martin continues for decades, the motives and merits of his attention are far from clear. In fact, for what he does to his patient, Beaumont will eventually stand trial and be judged.

Rooted deeply in historic fact, Open Wound artfully fictionalizes the complex, lifelong relationship between Beaumont and his illiterate French Canadian patient. The young trapper's injury never completely heals, leaving a hole into his stomach that the curious doctor uses as a window to understand the mysteries of digestion. Eager to rise up from his humble origins and self-conscious that his medical training occurred as an apprentice to a rural physician rather than at an elite university, Beaumont seizes the opportunity to experiment upon his patient's stomach in order to write a book that he hopes will establish his legitimacy and secure his prosperity. As Jason Karlawish portrays him, Beaumont, always growing hungrier for more wealth and more prestige, personifies the best and worst aspects of American ambition and power.


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