The Gruesome Medical Breakthrough of Dr. William Beaumont on Mackinac Island

If not for the stomach wound, Beaumont and St. Martin would not have met. Officers and voyageurs inhabited separate social spheres on the small island. “Army officers mixed with the island's elite …while the voyageurs spent their brief time on the island camped along the beach and frequenting the village saloons and gambling halls,” says Phil Porter, director of Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Beaumont viewed St. Martin as something of a party animal, worthless except for what his stomach could do for science. In letters the doctor often referred to his patient as “villain,” “drunkard,” and “ungrateful.” And when St. Martin left Beaumont once to go back to Canada because he missed his wife and children, Beaumont wrote that his subject “absconded.”

The doctor showed little concern for St. Martin’s physical or emotional well-being throughout the experiments, although they often left St. Martin lightheaded, nauseous, constipated and with a headache. Who knows what other sicknesses the Quebecois’ amazing immune system stanched, as Beaumont freely placed objects of questionable sterility, including thermometers and spoons, into the hole? We know, too, that St. Martin was ridiculed by his peers over his freakish stomach, as his brother, Etienne, also a voyageur, once stabbed another voyageur for taunting St. Martin.

To accommodate his experiments, Beaumont schemed various ways to keep St. Martin close at hand. On Mackinac he took the recovering voyageur into his home as a chore boy to prevent the Mackinac authorities, who’d branded St. Martin a pauper, from transporting him back to Quebec—a journey that Beaumont, to his credit, feared St. Martin couldn’t survive. Later, when he was healed, St. Martin became a hired hand in the home while Beaumont began experimenting on him.

In Prairie du Chien, Beaumont housed St. Martin, as well as his wife, Marie, and children. The family was treated as hired hands, and St. Martin was paid as such. Later, Beaumont arranged to have St. Martin enlisted in the army so he could receive a stipend to live on—although St. Martin’s only duty was to present his stomach to Beaumont.

Probably the oddest period the doctor and the voyageur spent together was during a stay in Washington D.C. The illiterate French Canadian and the proper doctor who spoke no French were alone together for long periods at a time—even on Christmas Day. From Beaumont’s records we can surmise the relationship didn’t flourish. St. Martin was drinking heavily and angry and impatient, moods that showed up in his digestion.

Beaumont’s insensitivity toward St. Martin, says Horsman, “was typical of the age.” In an article entitled “Alexis St. Martin (1794-1880): The Intrepid Guinea Pig of the Great Lakes,” author Robert Helms agrees with Horsman. He quotes an 1843 letter from St. Martin to Beaumont that explains his unwillingness to travel and reveals, perhaps, the patient’s attempt to remind the doctor of his human condition. “I have not forgot you. I have had some sickness in my family, and lost two of my children, and was unwell myself for the best part of a year.”

Given all the discomforts of the experiments, why did St. Martin offer his stomach to Beaumont? St. Martin was wretchedly poor and the money helped—although his time with Beaumont kept him from pursuing his career as a voyageur, or planting crops. But more fundamentally, St. Martin must have felt a duty to the doctor for saving his life.

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