Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America's First Great Medical Scientist

Overview

In Frontier Doctor, Reginald Horsman provides the first modern, scholarly biography of a colorful backwoods doctor whose pioneering research on human digestion gained him international renown as a physiologist. Before William Beaumont's work, there was still considerable controversy as to the nature of human digestion; his research established beyond a doubt that digestion is a chemical process.

Beaumont received his medical training as an apprentice in a small town in Vermont ...

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Overview

In Frontier Doctor, Reginald Horsman provides the first modern, scholarly biography of a colorful backwoods doctor whose pioneering research on human digestion gained him international renown as a physiologist. Before William Beaumont's work, there was still considerable controversy as to the nature of human digestion; his research established beyond a doubt that digestion is a chemical process.

Beaumont received his medical training as an apprentice in a small town in Vermont and served as a surgeon's mate in the War of 1812. After the war, he practiced in Plattsburgh, New York, before making his career as an army surgeon. His chance for fame came in 1822, when he was serving at the lonely post of Fort Mackinac in Michigan Territory. A Canadian voyageur--Alexis St. Martin--was accidentally shot in the stomach at close range, and his wound healed in such a way as to leave a permanent opening. This enabled Beaumont to insert food directly into the stomach, to siphon gastric juice, and to experiment on the process of digestion both inside and outside the stomach.

Because Beaumont had considerable difficulty in persuading St. Martin to stay with him so he could continue his research, his study was carried out sporadically over a number of years. In the early 1830s, with the support of Joseph Lovell, the surgeon general of the army, Beaumont and St. Martin went to the East Coast, where additional experiments were carried out. In 1833, Beaumont published Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, a book based upon his research on St. Martin and the work upon which his reputation primarily rests. His observations revealed more about digestion in the human stomach than had ever before been known, and his work was immediately praised in both the United States and Europe.

After he left the army, Beaumont established a successful private practice in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent the latter part of his life. Beaumont, a fascinating, argumentative character, was often engaged in public controversy. He was also good friends with several notable men, including the young Robert E. Lee.

Frontier Doctor sheds welcome new light on the state of medicine both inside and outside the army in the early nineteenth century and provides absorbing information on the early experi-ments that set the research into human digestion irrevocably on the right course.

The book contains black-and-white illustrations.

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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: 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.
David L. Nahrwold
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. 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. 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. Horsman's documentation is extensive. The bibliography is itself interesting. The index is well done. Amap showing the places described in the book would add to its excellence. 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.
Booknews
Beaumont (1785-1855) was the one we all heard about in elementary school who conducted tests on a man's stomach that had healed with a hole it in. He was a US Army doctor in Michigan territory in 1822 when the research began; in 1833 he published the scientific book that made him world famous by establishing digestion as a chemical process. Horsman (history, U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) traces his career from apprenticeship and service in the War of 1812 through his investigations, fame, and comfortable private practice in St. Louis. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

3 Stars from Doody
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826210524
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/1996
  • Series: Missouri Biography Series , #1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Reginald Horsman is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is the author of numerous books, including Feast or Famine.

The Missouri Biography Series, edited by William E. Foley

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