Alexis was recovering, William got him to stay around the hospital by
hiring him as the family's live-in handyman. One of the more bizarre experiments
that William conducted on Alexis included dangling a piece of food from
a piece of string through the tube into the stomach. At
hourly intervals, William pulled the string out and determined how much
food had been digested. Different types of food (carbs, proteins, fats)
were dangled through the tube in order to observe differences in the digestive
rate. William performed similar experiments in glass containers, by removing
stomach juices and putting different foods into the containers.
Among Beaumont's observations, he discovered that
gastric juice had to be warm in order to digest food. Cold gastric juice
was ineffective. He also noticed how milk coagulated before digestion
and how vegetables took longer to digest than other foods (due no doubt
to their fiber content).
Beaumont did some of the first experiments involving
the emotional/mental influence on digestion. Being angry, for example,
was seen to impair digestion. All of these experiments were conducted
over a span of several years with Alex St. Martin.
During a tour of duty at Jefferson Barracks, near
St. Louis, William and his wife became close personal friends with Lt.
Robert E. Lee and his family. Lee later became a famous Confederate General
during the Civil War.
William finally left the Army in 1839, because they
wanted him to go to Florida as part of the war against the Seminole Indians.
William stayed on as a civilian doctor in St. Louis. He made about $10,000
per year, which was vastly more than he earned in the Army. In 1853, William
slipped on an icy step in St. Louis, hit his head, and suffered a major
hemorrhage. The trauma triggered an infection, and William died.
the primitive Army hospitals that William had to work in, he would be
probably be surprised at the major medical complex of 70 buildings at
Fort Bliss that has been named in his honor: William Beaumont Army Medical
Center. The Center has a capacity of 600 beds and employs 1,500 military
and 700 civilian personnel--a great change since the medical conditions
of the 1800's!
What became of Alex St. Martin? Actually,
Alex lived some 58 years after he was shot. The hole in his stomach (called
a "fistula") never healed. He complained from time to
time of indigestion. Alex died of alcoholism and old age (he lived to
be 86). To prevent anyone from examining his stomach wound or performing
an autopsy, the family deliberately left Alex's body to decompose in the
hot sun for four days. They buried the body in a deep, unmarked grave
in a churchyard.
Beaumont, W. 1833. Experiments and Observations on the Gastric
Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. F. P. Allen. Plattsburgh.
Horsman, Reginald. 1996. Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America's
First Great Medical Scientist. Univ. Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri
Nelson, R. B. III. 1990. Beaumont: America's First Physiologist.
Grant House, Geneva, Illinois.
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