A Gutsy Life: Reboot

Dear Museum Biters – Unfortunately, I’m down with the flu. Please enjoy this reboot of the amazing life of voyageur, Alexis St. Martin.

Today on Museum Bites we’re taking a look at the gutsy life of French Canadian voyageur, Alexis St. Martin (1804-1880). In the early 1800s, St. Martin and his mates navigated heavily laden canoes through the chilly Canadian waterways, transporting furs and other goods to trading posts along the way.

Voyageurs, F.A. Hopkins [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons
Voyageurs, F.A. Hopkins, Wikimedia Commons

By day voyageurs paddled for 15 backbreaking hours, negotiating whitewater rapids, and portaging thousands of pounds of cargo.  At night they made camp, filled their bellies, and slept beneath their canoes.  It was a simple, rugged and fraternal way of life.

More often than not, I have observed that our galette were composed of flour, water, dead flies and the odd pebble, and dirt from the cook’s unwashed hands. Which hands were but seconds ago applying a heady mixture of skunk oil and bear grease as protection against the mosquito and black fly. ~The Voyageurs (1964, National Film Board of Canada)

Unfortunately, St. Martin’s days of skunk oil baths and fly-infested galette came to an abrupt end on June 6, 1822.  While offloading goods on Mackinac Island, he was accidentally shot at close range, inside the American Fur Company Store.

Beaumont & St. Martin, by Dean Cornwell (1938)
Beaumont & St. Martin, by Dean Cornwell (1938)

There is no record of who shot him or details surrounding the incident, but we do know Dr. William Beaumont (1786-1853), the post surgeon at nearby Fort Mackinac was summoned.  Here is his account of St. Martin’s condition:

I was called to him [St. Martin] immediately after the accident. Found a portion of the Lungs as large as a turkey’s egg protruding through the external wound, lacerated and burnt, and below this another protrusion resembling a portion of the Stomach, what at first view I could not believe possible to be that organ in that situation with the subject surviving, but on closer examination I found it to be actually the Stomach, with a puncture in the protruding portion large enough to receive my fore-finger, and through which a portion of his food that he had taken for breakfast had come out and lodged among his apparel. In this dilemma I considered my attempt to save his life entirely useless.

~William Beaumont, Fort Mackinac Post Surgeon (1822)

Despite Beaumont’s grim prognosis, St. Martin survived but the bullet wound did not heal properly.  A fistula (narrow passage) formed leaving a sizable hole in St. Martin’s abdomen. Unable to return to the vigorous paddling and heavy lifting of the voyageur, St. Martin went to work as a part-time handyman and lab rat for the good doctor.

L0005178 Physiology of digestion, W. Beaumont, 1833
Physiology of digestion, William Beaumont (1833), Wikicommons

This unique window into the stomach prompted Beaumont to conduct a series of experiments. He began taking detailed notes on St. Martin’s diet, collected samples of his stomach acid, and noted any changes in digestion. Beaumont even went so far as to tie bits of food and other objects (i.e., spoons, thermometers) to a string and dip them into St. Martin’s stomach. After 250 of these fishing expeditions, Beaumont published his findings in, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1833).

William Beaumont, by Tom Jones (NYPL Digital Gallery) [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons
William Beaumont, by Tom Jones (NYPL Digital Gallery) Wikimedia Commons

Beaumont and St. Martin gained almost instant fame, but within a year they parted ways.  Beaumont became the darling of the medical world and went on to a lucrative medical practice. He died in 1853 several weeks after suffering a severe head wound after slipping on the ice.  Today he is referred to as the Father of Gastric Physiology.

Alexis St. Martin, by Jesse Shire Myer [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons
Alexis St. Martin, by Jesse Shire Myer, Wikimedia Commons

St. Martin’s path took a much seedier turn. Weary of Beaumont’s experiments, he returned to Canada but suffered ridicule and freak show celebrity.  He eventually succumbed to his “fame”, allowing charlatan and huckster, Dr. Bunting to parade him around on a 10-city tour. After his death in 1880, St. Martin’s family went to considerable effort to protect his privacy. They allowed his body to markedly decompose in the sun for several days and subsequently buried him in an unmarked grave. In 1962, the Canadian Physiological Society tracked down St. Martin’s tomb and commemorated his service to science.

If you’d like to learn more about Alexis St. Martin’s life on the water, click on The Voyageurs link, to watch a short film.

Frightening Fistula Facts: In 1840, now famous Dr. William Beaumont was called upon to treat a man who had been bludgeoned with an iron cane. In order to relieve pressure on the man’s brain, Beaumont drilled a hole in his skull, a procedure called trephination and at the time, a common treatment for severe head wounds. Unfortunately, the man died and during the cane wielder’s trial, Beaumont was painted as a mad fistula-drilling scientist who intentionally poked holes in his patients for personal gain. The argument worked and the cane wielder was only fined $500 for his crime.

Ivan Pavlov (1902), Wikimedia Commons
Ivan Pavlov (1902), Wikimedia Commons

Beaumont’s reputation withstood the accusations and he continued to practice medicine.  However, his work inspired a frenzy of fistula research, predominately on animals. After studying Beaumont’s experiments, Ivan Palov (1849-1936) of classical conditioning and drooly dog fame began cutting fistulas into dogs with the hopes of better understanding digestive secretions. Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904.

That wraps up our brief glimpse into the life of Alexis St. Martin and  William Beaumont. Next week, we’ll take a look at a brutal and bloody ballgame played by the ancient Mesoamericans. In the meantime, wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, and safe week!




Live Science

McGill University Digital Library


National Center for Biotechnology Information

National Film Board of Canada

NewYorker Magazine (Nov. 24, 2014)

The Neuroscientist (Vol. 5, No. 4, 1999)


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