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

The two never saw each other again after 1834, although over the course of the next two decades, Beaumont tried unsuccessfully to lure St. Martin to his home in St. Louis (where he eventually settled) for more experiments. Once, Beaumont sent his son, Israel, to Quebec as an envoy. But Beaumont and St. Martin could never come to terms. St. Martin wouldn’t visit without his family. Beaumont didn’t want the family, and even when he or St. Martin relented on that point, the doctor wouldn’t advance enough money to make the visit happen, for fear the “irresponsible” St. Martin would squander the funds.

Although a world apart, the men’s odd relationship haunted both to the end of their days. In 1840, Beaumont was called in as one of several physicians to assist the publisher of a St. Louis newspaper who’d been struck on the head with an iron cane by a politician who his newspaper had maligned. Beaumont performed a trepanning operation—cutting a hole in the patient’s skull to remove the pressure. The publisher died, and the politician went on trial for murder. In their defense, his lawyers accused Beaumont of drilling the hole in the man’s head just to see what was inside, just as he’d left the hole in St. Martin’s side. It worked. The politician got off with a $500 fine. (While Beaumont then and at other times has been accused of not closing the hole after the wound healed so he could exploit it, Horsman for one, believes the doctor didn’t possess the means or the knowledge to do so.)

But generally Beaumont’s later life in St. Louis was comfortable. He was happily married, and had three children he adored. While Beaumont’s book never made him much money, it brought him prominence, which translated into a busy physician’s practice. Beaumont died in 1853, about a month after he hit his head on an icy step after visiting a patient.

St. Martin outlived his doctor by 27 years. In 1856, a charlatan, going by the name of Bunting and masquerading as a doctor, toured St. Martin around 10 cities, treating him like a circus freak. While in St. Louis, the pair visited Beaumont’s widow and son, Israel. Presumably, St. Martin made some money from the tour, but it wasn’t enough to lift him out of poverty in his old age.

Israel and St. Martin corresponded for the rest of St. Martin’s life. St. Martin probably would have appreciated some charity. But perhaps, too, both men sensed the importance they’d had in each other’s lives—a significance that had been lost within the social order of the early 19th century.

When St. Martin died in 1880, his family purposely left his body out to decompose in the sun before burying him in an unmarked grave—eight feet deep with rocks on the casket—all to keep the curious from exhuming it.

In 1962, St. Martin finally got his due when the Canadian Physiological Society decided it was time to mark his grave. The society’s sleuthing turned up the fact that St. Martin was 28 at the time of the accident, not 18 has had been believed for 140 years—largely because Beaumont recorded it that way. Beaumont, who knew every nuance of St. Martin’s stomach, apparently never bothered to check his subject’s age. T

Elizabeth Edwards is Managing Editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

See For Yourself

The American Fur Company store on Mackinac Island’s Market Street looks as it did the day of the famous accident—thanks to Mackinac State Historic Parks. From the store, wander into a Beaumont Museum, complete with a St. Martin mannequin. Yes, he’s outfitted with a hole so you can dip a string loaded with (faux) meat into the stomach. Both the store and museum are open from June 12 to August 22 in 2004. For more information visit www.mackinacparks.com

To read more on Beaumont and St. Martin, check out the sources we used for this article:

“Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America’s First Great Medical Scientist by Reginald Horsman.” (University of Missouri Press, 1996). Guinea Pig Zero A Journal for Human Research Subjects. “Alexis St. Martin (1794-1880): The Intrepid Guinea Pig of the Great Lakes,” by Robert Helms. (Guinea Pig Zero # 6). www.guineapigzero.com
“Dr. William Beaumont The Mackinac Years” by Keith R. Widder. (Mackinac Island State Park Commission, 1975)

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