Alexis St. Martin, who had been shot in the stomach, was first treated by US Army surgeon William Beaumont who became known as the ‘Father of Gastric Physiology’.

St. Martin was a French-Canadian voyageur who was employed by the American Fur Company to transport furs in large cargo canoes. While visiting the company’s store on Mackinac Island in Michigan, he was accidentally shot at close range with a shotgun that had been loaded with lead pellets for hunting ducks.

The surgeon from the local US Army fort was called to treat the injured man, whom it was assumed would die of the horrific effects of the gunshot. A large cavity had been opened in his side, his ribs were fractured, and there was a hole in his stomach. However, despite the dire diagnosis St. Martin slowly recovered. The one key reminder of the accident was that the hole in his stomach had attached itself to the hole in his body, leaving a direct route into his stomach from the outside.

Known as a permanent gastric fistula, the direct access to St. Martin’s stomach led Dr Beaumont to contract the illiterate voyageur as his servant and medical test subject. Beaumont’s experiments, which often involved the observation of pieces of food that had been tied to string and inserted directly into his subject’s stomach, led to enormous advances in the scientific understanding of digestion.

Beaumont’s decision to keep the hole open, rather than perform surgery to close it, raised very few ethical questions at the time. The doctor actually gained enormous prestige from his research, which he published in his book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. His subject, St. Martin, later returned to Canada where he died naturally in 1880.

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