The Man With a Hole in His Stomach

In 1833 Doctor William Beaumont published

“Experiments and observations on the gastric juice, and the physiology of digestion”

In it he described the results of the experiments he had carried out on one Alexis St Martin A French Canadian soldier who had suffered from a gunshot wound.

Whilst out hunting Alexis had accidently been shot in the side. When the good doctor found him he was in a very bad way, with a ‘portion of lung as large as a turkey’s egg’ poking out of his abdomen.

Being the 1820’s there wasn’t much that the doctor could do, other than poke it back in, dress it and hope for the best.

Alexis defied the odds and made a full recovery, though he was left with a fistula, a hole, large enough to put a finger through. Beaumont recognized the potential of this as a means of exploring the workings of the digestive system and the two worked together on a series of exeptional experiments.

By inserting a tube into the hole it was possible to extract the gastric juice. This was placed in a bowl with samples of food added and observations over time showed, that once heated to body temperature, the food would be digested just as effectively outside the body as in.

Another series of experiments involved tying food onto a string which could be pushed through the hole and removed at intervals. Cabbage, bread and meat were found to be digested at different times.

The report also describes in some detail the taste of the gastric juice which was found to change with diet, stress and time.

Pure gastric juice when taken directly out of the stomach of a healthy adult unmixed with any other fluid save a portion of the mucus of the stomach with which it is most commonly and perhaps always combined is a clear transparent fluid inodorous a little saltish and very perceptibly acid Its taste when applied to the tongue is similar to thin mucilaginous water slightly acidulated with muriatic acid.

A newspaper report of 1856 described some of the experiments.

He took from the empty stomach, at an early hour in the morning, two ounces of gastric juice, which he divided into two equal parts and placed in separate vials, in each of which he placed, a given quantity of roast beef. The one was placed in a sand bath at 99 degrees, and the other in open air at 29 degrees. He likewise put the same quantity of meat into a like portion of clear water, and intermixed a similar portion with gastric juice, previously extracted, of the temperature of the air.

The meat in the fresh gastric juice, placed in the warm bath, proceeded towards digestion as if contained in the stomach, and was finally wholly digested by the addition of a further quantity of gastric juice. That contained the water was simply macerated, and that in the gastric juice having a low temperature was affected but slightly.

The series of experiments instituted by Dr. Beaumont, to ascertain the time required to digest various articles of food, are familiar to the medical and scientific men. Boiled rice was found to require only one hour to digest, and pork five hours, these two being the extremes.

Read the whole article at History Cellar

Alexis lived a full and happy life in Montreal, though he was apparently had something if a temper, which caused his juice to squirt out of the hole. He died in 1880 and his family delayed burial until his body was decomposing to prevent anyone digging him up for further experimentation

Read Beaumont’s report in full at

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