An Accidental Opportunity

BeaumontWilliam Beaumont was an army doctor stationed at Fort Mackinac in Michigan in 1822 when an accident occurred that allowed him to make the first systematic study of the process of digestion. Alexis St. Pierre, a young French Canadian army porter was wounded in the stomach when a musket accidentally discharged. He was brought to Beaumont who was unable to close the wound. The man developed an infection for which, according to accepted practice at the time, he was bled by Beaumont. In spite of this useless treatment he survived and became a living laboratory. After about eighteen months the hole partially healed, becoming more like a valve through which the stomach contents could be sampled. And sample Beaumont did, for about nine years!

He confirmed that the gastric juices were acidic, a property previously noted by the famous Flemish physician J.B. van Helmont in the 1600s. He also showed, as van Helmont had done before, that acidity was not enough for digestion because putting food into a straight acid solution did not lead to its breakdown. There must be some other substance secreted by the stomach which was critically important, he maintained! Soon after Beaumont’s investigations laid the foundation, this critical substance was isolated and identified as the enzyme pepsin. Beaumont also showed that juice removed from the stomach and placed in a glass jar could digest food the same as in the stomach. There was no “vital force” the human body possessed that was required for digestion as some had maintained.

Beaumont carried out hundreds of experiments using different foods, measuring the time taken for “chymification” in the stomach and in vials. He also measured the time taken for the stomach to empty after various meals. Alcohol, he discovered, irritated the lining of the stomach and therefore recommended that patients with heartburn stay away from such beverages. Everytime we take an antacid for an upset stomach, we should give a little thought to William Beaumont and his elegant work. He convinced doubters that stomach juice was not an inert liquid by resorting to facts, which he said “were more persuasive than arguments.” In 1853 Beaumont fell off a horse and developed an infection. Unfortunately, unlike the lucky St. Martin, he did not survive.

Joe Schwarcz

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