Alexis St Martin was a Canadian fur trader who had the bad luck to be shot in the stomach. He had the even worse luck of being shot in 1822. When he survived . . . you could argue that he had the worst luck of all.
Twenty-eight year old Alexis St Martin was standing in just the wrong place at just the wrong time. That place was just in front of a careless duck hunter with a shotgun, and the time was 1822. The gun went off, and Alexis was rushed to a nearby army hospital. The rush was purely for show. Such a wound was almost always fatal, and Alexis had been so close to the gun that his shirt had caught fire from the blast. At the hospital, Dr. William Beaumont tried his best to save Alexis — and was surprised to see that his best was good enough.
‘Enough’ was a relative word. St Martin never died, but the wound never closed, either. And what a wound it was. The hole went through St Martin’s side and into his stomach. When he ate, food actually fell out of him. And notes at the time said that he was able to stay alive only through regular ‘nutritious enemas’. Eventually, though, the edges of the stomach healed and knitted to the edges of the outer skin. The stomach was functional, and the body cavity of the abdomen was covered, but the perforation stayed.
Beaumont, who had been a doctor for some time, immediately saw the value of the wound. Digestion was not well understood in the 1800s. There was no way to see inside a body unless it was dead. This proved such a frustration that one doctor tried putting food in mesh bags with string that he swallowed, and then pulled back up his throat at various times during the digestive process. Doctors still didn’t know what the stomach did, what gastric juices it secreted, and whether its procedures were different for each food. St Martin was the perfect guinea pig.
Over the next year, Beaumont brought St Martin back to his home. The hospital, when they realized he could not pay and that his wound wasn’t immediately dangerous, had kicked him out. When St Martin became well enough, he performed domestic work by day, and was a scientific experiment by night. He was asked to eat various foods, at which point the dressing was taken off of his wound. The foods would either pour out — or, if he was in the right position, they would be able to watch the stomach go about its digestion. The doctor also removed pieces of the stomach lining from St Martin. The whole process went on for years, with St Martin taking occasional breaks to get married and have six children. Although St Martin did get money for his participation in experiments, and eventually was released from having to work as a handyman, the doctor never actually made good on his original plan to sew closed the hole in St Martin’s stomach.
Eventually, the two split, when St Martin asked for too much money for his services as a lab rat. He did tour medical facilities, but eventually all but disappeared into the back woods. Medical establishments never stopped pursuing him, and when he died, the family not only let the body rot, but buried it in an unmarked grave in an attempt to stop any more medical experiments being done on him.