Bodily Defenses Image Map

William Beaumont (1785-1853)
William Beaumont had five sisters and three brothers, one of whom also became a physician. The children grew up on a farm in Connecticut.  When William was 22, he tried to teach school. For a time, he was his town's schoolmaster as well as secretary for the local debating society. Beaumont decided that he wanted something different, he wanted to become a doctor. William's interest in medicine was likely stimulated by one of his school teachers, Silas Fuller, who later became a physician and served in the medical corps. In those days, there were not many medical schools and no standards for medical training. Some "doctors" practiced medicine with NO formal training. At age 26, William learned medicine by serving as an apprentice with two established physicians in Vermont. William received his license to practice surgery within a year.
When the War of 1812 started, William joined the Army's medical corps and served in several battles, receiving a citation for bravery. When the war ended three years later, William re-entered civilian life and set up a practice in Plattsburgh, New York. Apparently unsatisfied with private practice, William re-joined the Army four years later and was stationed at Fort Mackinac, where he was to conduct his experiments on digestion.
Even without war, life in the Army was pretty miserable in those days. The doctors sometimes had to sleep outdoors during the cold and wet Northern winters. "Hospitals" were commonly set up in barns or tents. William's pay was $30 per month. The hospital at Fort Mackinac had totally unacceptable conditions. In the winter, snow would actually blow into the building through cracks. In the summer, beds had to be moved around to keep patients from being rained on. Needless to say, medical supplies and equipment were limited. They often went for months without a thermometer!
Yet under these conditions, William conducted experiments on Alexis (his photo is on the right) that were the beginning of modern physiology, the science of bodily functions. Luckily, throughout the experiments, Alexis did not develop an infection under William's care. William could not get the stomach wound to heal, however.  This was not all bad though, since it was the leakage of food that compelled William to put in a tube that could be closed off. And the tube, of course, gave William the chance to make direct observations on digestive processes. William was certainly not a scientist in the modern sense of the word.  But he possessed one of the key characteristics of any good scientist: curiosity. He was tenacious, pursing his experiments even when difficult and inconvenient.

 

 


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