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Doody's Review ServiceReviewer: David L. Nahrwold, MD (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)
Description: Most physicians and many scientists know that the gastric fistula of Alexis St. Martin provided important information about the function of the stomach, and that his physician, William Beaumont, conducted the experiments. Reginald Horsman, a historian, now provides the modern definitive biography of Beaumont, describing not only the life of the man, but the times in which he lived and worked.
Purpose: Beaumont, an Army surgeon, had no medical degree or training in the scientific method. When St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach on isolated Mackinac Island, Beaumont, the post surgeon, managed his wound, which created a gastric fistula as it healed. Beaumont conducted experiments on St. Martin, placing foodstuffs in the stomach and later removing the gastric content to determine the role of the stomach in digestion. He also compared digestion of food in vivo with that in vitro. The eminent chemists of the time identified hydrochloric and acetic acid in the gastric juice supplied by Beaumont, but to his disappointment they were unable to provide more information. Beaumont published his experiments in a book in 1833, resulting in international recognition and several honors.
Audience: Written for the general public, the book is especially interesting to physicians and scientists because of the emphasis on the circumstances surrounding Beaumont. He would have failed without the reluctant cooperation of St. Martin and the support of his mentor and boss, Surgeon General Robert Lovell. Eventually, Beaumont gave up research and his Army career for a lucrative private practice in St. Louis.
Features: Horsman's documentation is extensive. The bibliography is itself interesting. The index is well done. A map showing the places described in the book would add to its excellence.
Assessment: This work will stand as the definitive Beaumont biography for a long time. General and medical libraries should have it. Historians, individuals interested in 19th century American history, physicians, and scientists will find this a classic story of science, military medicine, and two unusual men who worked together to produce a classic work of physiology.