American Medical Biographies/Beaumont, William

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Beaumont, William (1785–1853)

William Beaumont, army surgeon and pioneer physiologist, was born at Lebanon, Connecticut, November 21, 1785, son of Samuel Beaumont, a Puritan New England farmer. He was the first to study the gastric juice obtained through a permanent fistula. His early education was such as to qualify him on attaining his majority for teaching school at Champlain, Clinton County, New York. At the same time he began to study medicine with Dr. Seth Pomeroy of Champlain, New York, and continued it with Dr. Benjamin Chandler of St. Albans, Vermont. He secured a license to practise from the Third Medical Society of Vermont, but on December 2, 1812, enlisted as surgeon's mate in the Sixteenth Regiment Infantry, United States Army. During April and May, 1813, he saw something of war surgery at the taking of York (now Toronto) where the retreating English exploded hundreds of barrels of powder under the feet of the advancing Americans, at the storming of Fort George May 27, 1813, and at the battle of Plattsburg, New York, September 11, 1813. During the latter the physicians were compelled to pass and repass from fort to fort and block houses, exposed to a cross fire of round and grape shot in dressing the wounds of the injured, but none failed to exhibit a soldier-like bravery. Dr. Beaumont stood actual test of facing death in caring for the injured. In 1815 he resigned and engaged in general practice at Ogdensburg, New York. On November 4, 1819, he re-entered the army as post surgeon and was assigned to Mackinac Island, Michigan, reporting to Gen. Macomb, June, 1820. While surgeon's mate he won the confidence of Dr. Joseph Lovell (q.v.), the first surgeon-general, and was offered but refused a thousand dollar clerkship in his consulting-room at Washington and many favors were given him during his army service helpful in his investigations of stomach digestion.

On June 6, 1822, occurred the accident to Alexis St. Martin, which left the walls of the stomach open by a valve, permitting a complete study of the processes of stomach digestion in both normal and abnormal conditions. In a memorial to the United States Senate, Beaumont describes the wound as "being under the left breast made by the accidental discharge of a shot gun at about two feet. A large portion of the side was blown off, ribs fractured and openings made into the pleural cavity and the abdomen, through which protruded portions of the lungs and stomach, much lacerated and burnt. The diaphragm was lacerated and a perforation made directly into the cavity of the stomach through which food was escaping when first seen." At the end of ten months the wound was partially healed, but St. Martin was altogether helpless. It was alleged that Beaumont purposely kept St. Martin's stomach open with a view to conducting experiments but Beaumont's manuscripts prove conclusively, according to Dr. Jesse S. Myer, that he made every possible effort to close the orifice. During the four years that St. Martin was lost to view the opening did not close and was in exactly the same condition when experiments were resumed in 1829. The civil authorities refused to longer provide for his needs and proposed to send him to his home in lower Canada more than fifteen hundred miles distant.

Beaumont was now thirty-seven years old with a wife and three children at a frontier army post, as assistant surgeon in the army, with a salary of $40 a month and four rations. Knowing that such a journey would be fatal to St. Martin, Beaumont took him into his own home, and for two years clothed, fed, nursed, doctored, and sheltered the helpless, suffering, and destitute invalid. In May, 1825, St. Martin was able to walk and help himself a little though unable to provide for his necessities. Now Beaumont kept him for the purpose of making observations and experiments. Two years later (1827) Beaumont communicated his studies to the Michigan Medical Society, of which he had been an honorary member since June 4, 1825. In 1900 the Michigan Medical Society erected a monument of stone, hard by the spot where these immortal studies were begun, and in a memorial meeting expressed its appreciation of Beaumont's contribution to the world's progress. In June, 1825, Beaumont was ordered to Fort Niagara, New York, taking St. Martin with him and continuing his studies. In August they visited Plattsburg, New York, and Burlington, Vermont, where St. Martin took "Dutch leave" of Beaumont.

While at Fort Niagara, June and July, 1825, Beaumont was principal witness in the court martial trial of Lieut. E. B. Griswold, for trying to shirk duty by feigning sickness. Beaumont, suspecting a fraud, prescribed a mixture of 20 grains of calomel with 6 grains of tartar emetic. On hearing the nature of the prescription ordered for his illness, Griswold returned to duty. The court found Griswold guilty but the president reversed the decision and criticised Beaumont. The doctor's reply to the president is a model (General order No. 9 of February 18, 1826). "Whether the plan adopted be justifiable or not I leave to medical men and candid judges to decide. It had the intended effect of returning Lieut. Griswold to his duty without prejudice to his health. Neither is it of very great moment to me whether a successful experiment be of more or less doubtful propriety, that speedily returns a soldier from a sick report to effective service of the government, be he private, non-commissioned or commissioned officer; neither do I think it of very great consequence whether it be done secundum artem, secundum naturcm or terrorem, provided it be well done."

In May, 1826, Beaumont was transferred to Fort Howard on Green Bay, and in 1828 to Fort Crawford, on the upper Mississippi. After nearly two years of constant search, Beaumont finally found St. Martin in lower Canada, two thousand miles from Fort Crawford. He had married, was the father of two children and had supported himself by service as a voyageur. At great expense Beaumont secured his return and continued the experiments on him from August, 1829, to 1831, when he was allowed to take his family and return home. St. Martin's condition may be inferred when it is considered that this journey was made in an open canoe and traversed the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio, up the Ohio, across the (now) state of Ohio, down Lakes Erie and Ontario and the River St. Lawrence, the trip taking six weeks. In August, 1832, Beaumont was granted leave of absence and met St. Martin at Plattsburg, New York. From November, 1832, to March, 1834, they were in Washington conducting experiments. In the fall of 1833 was issued the first edition of "Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion." In all there were about two hundred and forty experiments, besides the microscopic examinations and observations. Early in 1834 he was ordered to Jefferson Barracks, a military post now fourteen miles below St. Louis, Missouri. Scarcely had he started for this new post when Lewis Cass, the secretary of war, received through Edward Everett, a petition signed by two hundred members of Congress, asking that Beaumont and St. Martin be sent to Boston, for study by Dr. Charles Jackson. The secretary of war replied that under existing arrangements it was impossible for Dr. Beaumont to visit Boston. Mr. Everett now sought to have Congress appropriate $10,000 to send Beaumont and St. Martin to Europe for study by the best physiologists and chemists of human gastric digestion. The appropriation failed. On July 1, Dr. Beaumont reached Jefferson Barracks, but one month later he was sent to Fort Crawford. In 1835 he was made purveyor of medical supplies for the western district and surgeon to the St. Louis Arsenal. The light duties of these positions permitted him to engage in private practice in which he promptly took a conspicuous position. In 1839 he was ordered to proceed at once to Florida for duty. This order being maintained in spite of his protests, he resigned and continued practice in St. Louis. During the cholera epidemic of 1849, though sixty-four years old, Dr. Beaumont labored day and night in caring for the sick. In 1844, in conjunction with Dr. S. W. Adreon, he was sued for $10,000 damages by a Mrs. Mary Dugan. The claim was that the doctors had treated an inguinal hernia as an appendicitis. The verdict was for the defendants, though a pamphlet war lasted many months with great virulence.

Of Beaumont's apt perception of strangers, Dr. Reyburn says: "You might introduce him to twenty strangers daily, and he would give an accurate estimate of each; his peculiar traits, disposition, etc., and not a few would receive some fitting sobriquet." His daughter, Mrs. Keim, says he once cured a hypochondriacal army officer by horsewhipping him. A wealthy, domineering man, the despair of many doctors, sought Beaumont's aid. He hesitated, but finally yielded to importunity on condition that what he prescribed would be done. His prescription was a large supply of bread pills and a trip to the Pacific coast—a cure resulted. Among his warm friends was Gen. Robert E. Lee, who from the age of sixteen was quite deaf, due to standing nearer a fourth-of-July cannon than any other boy of his set, on challenge. Not the least of Beaumont's trials with St. Martin was the settling of his fights with the teasing crowds who called him "the man with a lid on his stomach." Later St. Martin separated himself from Beaumont and became debauched and unreliable. He would promise to return for experimentation and on the receipt of money for his expenses would spend it on whiskey, the only article that he always insisted on taking by the natural channel.

It is difficult to realize the dense ignorance of the medical profession of stomach digestion in 1832, the date of Beaumont's publication. Dunglison's "Human Physiology" quotes five theories: concoction, putrefaction, trituration, fermentation and maceration. He also quotes with approval William Hunter's remark, "some physiologists will have it that the stomach is a mill; others that it is a fermenting vat, but in my view of the matter it is neither a mill, a fermenting vat, or a stew pan, but a stomach, gentlemen, a stomach." Dr. V. C. Vaughan ("Transactions of Michigan State Medical Society," 1896, p. 1) says that, considering the conditions under which he labored and the results he left behind, Beaumont is one of the great historic characters of the world. In the nearly three-fourths of a century that have passed his discoveries are still approved by both chemists and physiologists. So exact was his study of the physical and chemical nature of gastric juice that excepting pepsin, the closest investigation of modern times with modern physics and chemistry has added little to Beaumont's work. Practical physicians during all these years have utilized Beaumont's studies in prescribing the diet of their patients. In 1833 the Columbian University of Washington, District of Columbia, gave Dr. William Beaumont the degree of M. D. honoris causa. In 1837 he was appointed professor of surgery in the medical department of St. Louis University. In 1838 he was vice president of Missouri Medical Society and in 1841 its president. Many medical societies elected him honorary member.

In 1821 Dr. William Beaumont married Debora, daughter of "Friend Israel Green, innholder in Plattsburgh, N. Y." She was a strong woman full of sympathy with her husband's work. When a young girl she voluntarily went to the "pest house" and took smallpox that she might be able to nurse smallpox patients during the war of 1812.

Beaumont's life was a stormy one from beginning to end, full of encounters, which he seemed to enjoy, and in which he usually came out victorious. He remained active and energetic to the last and died at his home in St. Louis, Missouri, April 25, 1853, as the result of an accident.

The first published account of St. Martin's case appeared in the Philadelphia Medical Recorder, January, 1825.

The unpublished records of the Michigan Medical Society, 1819–1848, show that in August, 1827, a report of the case of Alexis St. Martin was made to this society. The report was accompanied by a statement of observations on the behavior of the stomach during digestion and experiments on its digestive powers. Dr. C. G. Jennings of Detroit possesses these records, to whom the writer is indebted.

Beaumont's paper of 1825 was published in German at Hamburg, in 1826; also in Paris in 1823 in the Archives Générales de Medecine. In 1833 was published in Plattsburg, New York, by F. P. Allen, "Experiments and Observations on Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion," by William Beaumont, M. D., surgeon in the United States Army.

In 1834 copies of the Plattsburg edition of the above were issued by Lilly, Wait & Company, of Boston, Massachusetts. In 1834 a German edition was issued of the above. In 1837 a second edition was issued from Burlington, Vermont, minor defects being corrected by Dr. Samuel Beaumont, a cousin of William, and in 1838 an edition was issued in Scotland by Dr. Andrew Combe.

St. Louis Med. and Surg. Jour., Dr. T. Reyburn, 1854.
Story of William Beaumont's Life, by Dr. A. J. Steele, 1887. (Told at the first Commencement of Beaumont Medical College, St. Louis, Mo.)
Trans. Mich. State Med. Soc., "William Beaumont and His Work," 1896, p. 16–26, by Victor C. Vaughan, Pres. Address.
The Phys. & Surgs., Dec., 1900, Ann Arbor, Mich., three papers on Beaumont; 1. by Dr. John Read Bailey on "Beaumont, Army Surgeon;" 2. by Dr. Frank J. Lutz, on "Beaumont the Practitioner," and 3. by Chas. S. Osborn, Esq., on "Beaumont the Citizen." These papers were read at the celebration of the erection of a monument to William Beaumont on the site of his first work on Alexis St. Martin, by the Michigan State Medical Society.
"A Pioneer Physiologist," an address before the St. Louis Med. Soc., Oct. 4, 1902, by William Osler, Jour. Amer. Med. Asso., Nov., 1902.
Bull. Soc. Med. Hist., Dr. William Beaumont, by Jesse S. Myer, M.D., Chicago, 1913, vol. i, 150–170.
William Beaumont as an Investigator, by Joseph Erlanger, M.D., 1915.
Dedication of New Buildings of Washington University, St. Louis, April, 1915, 141–162. Portrait.