Sunday, February 3, 2008

Peephole: The first man to watch a living human gut at work

William Beaumont, M.D., was a surgeon in the United States Army in the early 19th century. His name survives in the annals of medicine because of an excellent adventure that began on June 6, 1822. Alexis St. Martin, an 18-year old French Canadian fur trader, was wounded by a musket ball that discharged accidentally, tearing through his back and out his stomach, leaving a wound that healed but didn’t close. St. Martin’s injury seems not to have affected what must have been a truly sunny disposition:

Two years later, when all efforts to close the hole in his gut had failed, he granted Beaumont permission to use the wound as the world’s first window on a working human digestive system. (To keep food and liquid from spilling out of the small opening, Beaumont kept it covered with a cotton bandage.)

Beaumont’s method was simplicity itself. At noon on August 1, 1825, he tied small pieces of food (cooked meat, raw meat, cabbage, bread) to a silk string, removed the bandage, and inserted the food into the hole in St. Martin’s stomach. An hour later, he pulled the food out. The cabbage and bread were half digested; the meat, untouched. After another hour, he pulled the string out again.

This time, only the raw meat remained untouched, and St. Martin, who now had a headache and a queasy stomach, called it quits for the day. But in more than 230 later trials, Beaumont — with the help of his remarkably compliant patient — discovered that although carbohydrates (cabbage and bread) were digested rather quickly, it took up to eight hours for the stomach juices to break down proteins and fats (the beef).

Beaumont attributed this to the fact that the cabbage had been cut into small pieces and the bread was porous. Modern nutritionists know that carbohydrates are simply digested faster than proteins and that digesting fats (including those in beef) takes longest of all. By withdrawing gastric fluid from St. Martin’s stomach, keeping it at 100° F (the temperature recorded on a thermometer stuck into the stomach), and adding a piece of meat, Beaumont was able to clock exactly how long the meat took to fall apart: 10 hours.

Beaumont and St. Martin separated in 1833 when the patient, now a sergeant in the United States Army, was posted elsewhere, leaving the doctor to write “Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion.” The treatise is now considered a landmark in the understanding of the human digestive system.

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