The Cavendish Historical Society's accepts tax-deductible contributions to help preserve our history. You can reach us at email@example.com 802-226-7807 or PO Box 472 Cavendish, VT 05142 The CHS Museum is located at 1958 Main Street (Route 131) in Cavendish.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Cavendish Believe it or Not: Alexis St. Martin-Guinea Pig
The Cavendish Historical Society (CHS) is collecting strange
tales of Cavendish. The story below comes from Linda Welch’s genealogical
research. If you have a story you’d like to share, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org or by
post to CHS, PO Box 472, Cavendish, VT 015142
Alexis St. Martin lived in Cavendish from about 1870 until
close to 1879. Listed as a farmer in the census, it’s unclear if people knew
his strange tale of being to the field of gastroenterology what Phineas Gage
was to the field of brain injury.
In1822, St. Martin, aged 28 , was working for the American
Fur Company as a voyageur- a rower of the big cargo canoes and responsible for
portaging over land when it wasn’t possible to travel by water. On the morning
of June 6 he was standing in the company store, when he was accidentally
injured by a shotgun blast. The muzzle was "not over three feet from him
--I think not more than two," according to an eyewitness. The whole charge
entered the side of St. Martin's chest.
Mackinac Island, where the accident occurred, was home to a
US Army fort, and so an Army surgeon, Dr. William Beaumont, came to his aid. As
Beaumont wrote 12 years later, "The
wound was received just under the left breast, and supposed, at the time, to
have been mortal. A large portion of the side was blown off, the ribs fractured
and openings made into the cavities of the chest and abdomen, through which
protruded portions of the lungs and stomach, much lacerated and burnt,
exhibiting altogether an appalling and hopeless case. The diaphragm was
lacerated and a perforation made directly into the cavity of the stomach,
through which breakfast food was escaping [when Beaumont arrived at the
Not only did St. Martin live, but he became the guinea pig
for Beaumont’s many medical experiments for the next 10 years. The hole in the
stomach had attached itself to the hole in the side of St. Martin's body,
forming a permanent gastric fistula. Consequently, whenever he took off the
dressing, his last meal would pour out.
According to an article Beaumont published in The American
Medical Recorder in 1825, "This case
affords a most excellent opportunity of experimenting upon the gastric fluids,
and the process of digestion. It would give no pain, nor cause the least
uneasiness, to extract a gill of fluid every two or three days, for it
frequently flows out spontaneously in considerable quantities; and one might
introduce various digestible substances into the stomach, and easily examine
them during the whole process of digestion. I may, therefor, be able hereafter
to give some interesting experiments on these subjects."
Drawing of St. Martin's Stomach by Dr. Beaumont
Beaumont never repaired the hole in St. Martin’s body and
even requested governmental support for his research. The doctor never
questioned his own ethics. He simply raved, for the rest of his life, about the
wonders that he and other researchers would find inside the magic hole in
Alexis St. Martin. From the experiments he performed on this man, he gained
enormous prestige as a leading physiologist and a permanent place in the
history of human research.
While St. Martin did eventually escape from Beaumont and his
experiments, he married and had children. However, due to money issues, he
would periodically reconnect with Beaumont for more medical experimentation.
In 1833, Beaumont published his book, Experiments and
Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. This
contains some 240 experiments, all performed in the same famous stomach and
earning the Army Surgeon considerable prestige. It included diet tables that
were used as authoritative texts for almost a century. His work with St. Martin
proved that digestion was a chemical process, ending a debate on this matter, which
dated from the earliest annals of medicine.
Beaumont died in April 1853 from brain injuries suffered
when he fell on ice-covered steps.
St. Martin’s life was not an easy one as he hooked up with a
charlatan snake oil salesman. By 1870, St. Martin and his family were living in
Cavendish, Vermont. He supposedly earned his living by "chopping wood by
the cord." His four surviving children, all adults, were married and living
with him, with a number listed in the census as being mill workers. They may
have come to work in the Fitton Mill, which opened in 1867 and burned in 1875
or the Proctorsville Mill which was also operational until the panic of
In 1879 he had returned to Canada. Judge Baby of the town of
Joliette (near Berthier), wrote of St. Martin’s last years as follows:
"When I came to
know St. Martin it must have been a few years before his death. A lawsuit
brought him to my office here in Joliette. I was seized with his interests; he
came to my office a good many times, during which visits he spoke to me at
great length of his former life, how his wound had been caused, his
peregrinations through Europe and the United States, etc.. He showed me his
wound. He complained bitterly of some doctors who had awfully misused him, and
had kind words for others.
St. Martin with his wife Marie
He had made
considerable money during his tours, but he had expended and thrown it all away
in a frolicsome way, especially in the old country. When I came across him he
was rather poor, living on a small, scanty farm in St. Thomas, and very much
addicted to drink, almost a drunkard one might say. He was a tall, lean man,
with a very dark complexion, and appeared to me then of a morose
Alexis St. Martin died at St. Thomas de Joliette, Quebec on
June 24, 1880. His family purposely left his body out to decompose in the sun
before burying him in an unmarked grave—eight feet deep with rocks on the
casket—all to keep the curious from exhuming it.