Mary Roach’s terrific book Gulp is disgusting, fascinating, repulsive, hilarious and, at times, stomach churning. If terms like bolus or chyme make you feel a little puke-y, then the book may not for you, which is a shame. As with her previous subjects (sex, dead bodies), Roach approaches all things alimentary with enthusiasm and panache, from dog food taste testing to Elvis Presley’s mega colon (which, along with a metric ton of prescription medications, led to his early death).
One chapter describes the strange relationship between Dr. William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin, an unlucky itinerant trapper who took a bullet to the gut at close range. In 1822, as in pretty much any other time, this would likely be Mr. St. Martin’s egress, but fortunately a doctor came quickly to his aid.
Unfortunately, that doctor was William Beaumont.
Had St. Martin been successfully treated by another physician, perhaps the fistula that formed when the wound did not heal properly would never have existed. Some postulate that, while Dr. B treated the wound, he noticed that parts of St. Martin’s lunch (perhaps along with his lungs) had spilled out onto the floor of the American Fur Company where St. Martin was employed. Perhaps, rather than doing his best to encourage the hole in Mr. St. Martin’s stomach to properly close, he may have thought, “This could be my big break.”
On and off over the next eleven years, the doctor made the study of digestion his focus and St. Martin his one-man laboratory. What were the mechanics of digestion? How long would it take to break down a piece of meat tied to a string that was inserted and later removed from Mr. St. Martin’s stomach? Would gastric juices do their job in the outside world?
And (for the love of god) what would happen if Dr. B stuck his tongue in there?
Mr. St. Martin had more than a fistula against his favor: He was poor and illiterate. Beaumont had him sign a contract to be his servant (even attempting to use it as a means to get him to return to Missouri for more experimentation when St. Martin fled to his family in Canada). And St. Martin did actually act in this capacity as well, though he eventually received a salary as a handyman.
The most important discovery Beaumont made was that digestion was as much a chemical reaction as it was mechanical: Samples of gastric juice extracted from St. Martin’s stomach did indeed digest food. The doctor also studied how environmental factors such as temperature affected digestion, and examined how the subject’s emotions slowed down or sped up the process.
After St. Martin was finally able to extricate himself from the situation and return to Canada in 1833, Dr. B continued to pursue him for the next 20 years until the Dr.’s death from a fall on icy steps, but to no avail. St. Martin did not return.
Roach’s retelling is nuanced, considering the experiments from both men’s point of view, explaining that as much as anything, the mores of the time and the difference in class perpetuated and even encouraged the notion that one man’s suffering in the sake of science is a worthy pursuit.
I am conflicted about this – while I recognize that others were the victims of much worse fates and that Beaumont did, in fact save the man’s life, there’s a part of me that’s pissed off for St. Martin.
While he did eventually stand up for himself, returning to Canada against Beaumont’s wishes, Beaumont got to have his say in ways that St. Martin never could. He left a written history of the relationship – and not just in the medical record. The doctor’s letters referred to his subject as beneath him, a fool, his worth only made possible as the subject of his own groundbreaking work.
I wish St. Martin had been able to pass his own words down to us too. I wish he had been able to articulate clearly how the years of mistreatment at the hands of a wealthy, respected and powerful man had made him feel. It need not have been much, but it would have been clear in ways that the book Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, the result of the work, never could be:
Dear Dr. Beaumont:
You are a jerk.
Alexis St. Martin, human being