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 margocaulfield@icloud.com 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 scene]."

Dr. Beaumont
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 1873-74.

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 disposition." 

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.

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