Alexis St. Martin (1794-1880):
The Intrepid Guinea Pig of the Great Lakes

by Robert Helms
From Guinea Pig Zero #6


Alexis and Marie St. Martin in Old Age

Alexis Bidagan dit St. Martin was born at Berthier, a village about 40 miles North of Montreal, Canada on April 18, 1794. The word dit means "called:" he went by St. Martin all his life, but his formal surname was Bidagan. His first name is pronounced like Alexie, as the final s is silent. He was third generation Canadian, his grandfather having come from Bayonne in the South Western corner of France. He was the son of Joseph Pierre Bidagan and Marie Des Agnes Angelique Guibeau, but no more than these few facts from his birth certificate are known of his life prior to the day when the thunderous sound of a gunshot would blast him into lasting fame.

In 1822 Alexis was 28 years old, working as a voyageur for the American Fur Company. A voyageur was a traveling porter and canoe-man, whose job it was to row the big cargo canoes along rivers, and to carry both the vessel and its cargo along the banks when a waterfall or rapids got in the way. These men went in teams, and they had their own songs and legends, faced their own special dangers. At this turning point in his life we find him passing through Mackinac --sometimes Machillimackinac --Island, which lies just off the top of the "mitten" of Michigan, in Lake Huron. On the morning of June 6 he was standing in the company store, and someone else was standing near him holding a shotgun, loaded for ducks. The muzzle was "not over three feet from him --I think not more than two," according to an eyewitness. At any rate, it accidentally fired, the whole charge entering the side of St. Martin's chest. The wadding and pieces of clothing entered along with the tiny lead pellets, and as he fell to the floor with his shirt catching on fire, all present believed Alexis to be as good as dead. It turned out that he was only starting off on a long adventure in guinea pigging, and probably the most famous ever in North America at that.

Mackinac Island served as home for a US Army fort at that time, and was always filled with a varied crew of Indians and travelers from all parts, many trading their wares or stopping off on their way to somewhere else. The Army surgeon was Dr. William Beaumont, who was by all reports alert, dedicated, and as talented as they come. As a crowd gathered around the injured man, Beaumont made his way through, then quickly cleaned and dressed the wound, reaching him just a few minutes after the mishap. At this stage Beaumont removed the cloth and wadding, trimmed off the ragged edges of the wound, and stanched the bleeding. The famous injury was described as follows by the surgeon himself a dozen 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]."

The physician remarked to someone assisting him on the scene of the accident that "the man cannot live thirty-six hours; I will come and see him by and by." To everyone's surprise, however, St. Martin pulled through and began a slow recovery. For 17 days all of the food that he ate was passed out through the wound. He was sustained by means of nutritious enemas. Soon afterward the bowels became active once again, and by the fourth week our young fur trader was eating heartily, digesting normally, and crapping away like a champ.

For some reason, St. Martin's age at the time was given by Beaumont as 18 years, and the error was not corrected until the Canadian Physiological Society marked his grave in 1962. Often referring to his patient as a "lad," the doctor was actually just nine years his senior. It is possible that Alexis for some reason falsified his age throughout his dealings with Beaumont, or even that someone else stated the age and the wounded man was never actually asked. At any rate, we can see that the two men didn't know each other as soul-mates, but rather were separated by opposite personalities and by other accidents of birth. Although both came from rural obscurity, Beaumont was a man of New England Puritan stock who advanced himself to wealth and fame by the power of his thrift and workaholism. Our famous patient-cum-guinea pig Alexis was a French-speaking Catholic who spent his money as it came to him, who preferred wine over work, and who longed to be away from the strange world of science, back home on his farm with his family. It was at this stage that Beaumont and St. Martin began raising the eyebrows of History. The dedicated physician had been tending to the gunshot wound and nursing his patient steadily back to health. He achieved success at the point when the man's digestive system was functioning normally and the general state of health was good. Dr. Beaumont wrote of the wound's stabilization in the fifth week as follows:

"By the adhesion of the sides of the protruded portion of the stomach to the pleura costalis and the external wound, a free exit was afforded to its contents, and thereby effusion into the abdominal cavity prevented. ...The stomach became more firmly attached to the pleura and intercostals by its external coat, but showed not the least disposition to close its orifice by granulations, which terminated as if at a natural boundary, and left the perforation resembling, in all but a sphincter, the natural anus with a slight prolapsus."

What he's saying here is that the hole in the stomach had attached itself to the hole in the side of St. Martin's body, and then it just stayed that way. The term for this is a permanent gastric fistula. It was good, he noted, because the food didn't spill out into the body cavity where it didn't belong. He invokes Nature as the cause of the fistula that was to render his patient a medical circus freak for the rest of his days. "The perforation," he added, "was about the size of a shilling piece... and the food and drinks continually exuded, unless prevented by the plug, compress, and bandage."

It was not all smooth sailing, of course. During the fourth month, Beaumont was still removing pieces of gun wadding and shot from abscesses around the wound. The doctor's journals describe many operations he performed on the chest to remove unstable pieces of ribs and cartilage. After about ten months, according to the doctor, his wounds were partially healed but he was still "an object miserable and helpless," and Alexis was declared a "common pauper" by the civil authorities of the county. The authorities decided that, because they were neither able nor required to look after him, they would send him home to his birthplace " at a distance of more than fifteen hundred miles," estimating the distance by boat.

Once again Dr. Beaumont stepped in and rescued our hero. Believing that the young fellow would be killed by the long journey home, he sort of adopted St. Martin into his own household, and the recovery continued. One year after the accident, the injured parts were all sound and firmly healed, with the exception of the aperture in the stomach and side.

In April 1824, almost two years after the shotgun accident, Alexis was promoted from Beaumont's patient to his employee. He worked as a sort of factotum, "performing any kind of labor, from that of a house servant to chopping wood or mowing in the field." During his first five months of duty, the doctor noted, he did not have "a day's sickness sufficient to disqualify him from his ordinary duties." St. Martin had no complaints of pain and no inconvenience save the hassle of applying the compresses over the hole. Whenever he took off the dressing, his last meal would pour out, so of course he had to keep it on while he was cleaning up around the doctor's house or tending to the cordwood. So began the one-way scientific love affair between a man and the hole in his patient's stomach. In an article Beaumont published in The American Medical Recorder in 1825, he closes on an optimistic note: "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."

Let us observe that Beaumont the scientist was taking over here as Beaumont the doctor stepped out of St. Martin's life. The positive note at the end of that first, interesting tale should have been to the effect that he planned another operation to close up the hole and separate the stomach from the body wall. This would have restored the patient to his normal state and made him ready to go on his merry way, as all healed patients should. William Beaumont never closed the hole, nor did he explain why he omitted to do so. This point entered the public debate in 1834, when Beaumont asked for money from the government to support his research, and more importantly in the Darnes-Davis murder case, when the matter was raised in order to shift blame for a death from the batterer to the surgeon who attempted to save the victim's life.

That trial deserves brief description here: in 1840, when Beaumont was practicing in St. Louis, a politician met a newspaper editor on the street and bashed in the latter's skull with his iron cane because he was unhappy with the way he had been treated in the paper's editorials. Beaumont was one of several surgeons who treated the editor. He decided to use a trephine, which is a kind of hole-saw, to cut a circular hole in the patient's skull in order to relieve pressure to the brain. The lawyer for the politician brought up the case of Alexis St. Martin as an example of Beaumont's scientific interests taking precedence over the welfare of a patient. The lawyer declared that "it was upon the same principle of curiosity which kept the hole open in the man's stomach that he bored a hole in Davis' head to see what was going on there!" On this premise the lawyer kept bringing the jury back to the question --did Davis die from his wounds or from the treatment of his doctors? The defendant walked away with a $500 fine, and Beaumont's reputation was harmed to a small extent.

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. Even to this day tourists see the wax figures of the two, on display at Fort Mackinac, and his writings are still on the shelves of university libraries throughout the world. It is difficult to suppose that the physician did not actively steer the course of events in such a way that the living body of the young fur trader would be of maximum benefit to his own career. This would be almost the same as explaining why a surgeon might perform a heart operation and then leave the patient's chest open in order to watch the heart beating for the following sixty years, or why a mechanic would could rebuild an engine but couldn't change a flat tire. This patient was denied the final and most obvious part of the treatment for his injury, and therefor Beaumont's use of Alexis St. Martin as an experimental subject was exploitative and unethical.

Beaumont's modern biographer Reginald Horsman explains the frontier doctor's attitude as average for the times in which they occurred: "...There were no concerned thoughts about the psychological effects of a permanent gastric fistula on this Canadian voyageur, no concerns about the mental effects of repeated tampering with his normal process of digestion, nor even any particular concern about the destitute condition of his family... Beaumont's attitude toward St. Martin was probably as good as most. He had no concern about the ethics of his experiments, but no one else did either. He was not an unkind man, but as a physician he was a man of his age."

The stomach experiments began in May, 1825, and the subject traveled with his employer wherever the Army would have Beaumont go. They went to Fort Niagara, NY; to Burlington, VT; and then to Plattsburgh, NY. Here the robust Alexis decided that he'd exposed his accidental anus to the intrusions of his inquisitive boss enough for one year, and then he skipped out and made his way home to Berthier. Here he married Marie Joly, and together they would have six children: Alexis Jr., Charles, Henriette, Marie, and two whose names are not recorded in the published texts. Taking up his old profession in furs with another firm, he remained in Canada for four years, until the diligent Dr. Beaumont traced him through agents of St. Martin's former employer, American Fur Company, which regularly sent recruiters North to look for workers. These agents hired the great guinea pig on Beaumont's behalf and transported him, with his wife and children, all the way to Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, about 2,000 miles away by boat --and in those days an extremely rugged trip. They arrived there in August 1829, and the doctor happily observed that no change in his precious hole had developed since his subject had been away. The St. Martin family remained at Fort Crawford almost two years, and had the third and fourth of their children there. The second series of experiments was performed under the same arrangement as before, i.e. with Alexis as the general servant and also the human guinea pig of Beaumont.

It was probably at Fort Crawford that an incident occurred between Alexis' brother, Etienne St. Martin, and a certain Charlie Charette, who had been teasing and ridiculing "the man with the lid on his stomach." Etienne stabbed the tormentor, wounding him "quite severely" and swore that he would "kill the whole brigade" if they didn't lay off his brother, according to an anecdote passed down from a neighbor.

The reason passed down to posterity for the second departure in March 1831 is Mrs. St. Martin's "homesickness and discontent." In later years Beaumont reminded his subject of "...the embarrassment and interruption that have occurred heretofore to the prosecution of my experiments upon you on account of having your family with you... At Prairie du Chien... you know your wife became so discontented and determined to go back that you were obliged to yield to her and disappoint me."

On the occasion of this second departure, Beaumont proudly described the method of travel used by Alexis, as a way of illustrating the completeness of his recovery and the ease with which he lived with his extra orifice. St. Martin took his family (Marie and the four kids) in an open canoe "via the Mississippi, passing St. Louis, ascending the Ohio to the lakes, and descended the Erie and Ontario and the river St. Lawrence to Montreal, where they arrived in June." The human guinea pigs of today can proudly look back to the strong, shrewd, and intrepid St. Martin, who used his experience in commerce to get the most for his services to Beaumont, but who did not let his whole life be drained of all its joys so that science could march forward and one man of medicine could bask in endless glory.

In the fall of 1832, Alexis signed himself up with Beaumont and the pair undertook their third series of experiments, first in Plattsburgh, then in Washington DC. Beaumont made use of his friendship with Surgeon General Joseph Lovell to have St. Martin enrolled in the US Army in 1833 as a Sergeant in a detachment of orderlies in Washington. He would receive $12 per month and a few allowances, and his only duty was to make himself available to Dr. Beaumont as an experimental subject. The enlistment records state that he was five feet five inches in height.

Alexis' responsibilities to the Army were never taken seriously by anyone high or low. Indeed, as though to emphasize this, the formula of having a contract between the two parties (subject and scientist) was continued both before and after St. Martin's enlistment. The first was signed (with Alexis' mark) on October 16, 1832 and the second on November 7, 1833. The first is for a one-year term at $150 plus food and lodging, with St. Martin agreeing to follow the doctor wherever he might go, anywhere in the world. The second version has the rate at $400 and the term two years. in each case, $40 were paid up front to Alexis. The same month, November 1833, saw the last recorded experiment that Beaumont ever performed on that savvy businessman.

These contracts, of course, would have been unnecessary between a soldier and his Commanding Officer, but the regular Army pay would never have persuaded a sane person to regularly whore out his fistula. The arrangement was invented so that Beaumont could save the expense of taking Alexis around with him and feeding him. At any rate, the Doctor was transferred to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri shortly after his second contract with Alexis was signed, and while Beaumont went shopping in the capital for scientific books to bring along to the frontier, he arranged for St. Martin to meet him in Plattsburgh after taking a short leave of absence. The Canadian never appeared. This truancy came at an especially embarrassing moment for Beaumont, because he had been approaching the U.S. Congress for research funding, and trying to arrange for demonstrations in major cities on both sides of the Atlantic, and all of it depended on the use of Alexis and his wonderful gut. However, no attempt was ever made to capture or impose military discipline upon Alexis, even when he deserted. Looking back on the event several years later, Beaumont told another Scientist that Alexis' return was prevented "partly from the situation of his family and its affairs, but more perhaps from the natural obstinacy of his disposition and unwillingness to submit himself for public experiments..."

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 no small 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. In 1835 Beaumont was appointed Medical Officer of the St. Louis Arsenal. He remained there until his death in 1853. Resigning his commission in 1840, he lived on a farm outside the city and was very active in the medical societies of the region. A large number of letters survived Beaumont, telling of his unceasing efforts to re-hire Alexis as his experimental subject, but always to his disappointment. The letters are informative for details on Alexis' life and whereabouts.

The reader will bear with us as we jump forward a century to 1939, when Arno B. Luckhardt, library curator at the University of Chicago, is writing a summary of the donation of William Beaumont's papers to his collection. One letter from St. Martin to the doctor is dated December 19, 1834. By that time Alexis has settled his family on a small farm fifteen miles southwest of Berthier, at a place called La Chalaupe. All of the agents sent by Beaumont reported that the family was very poor, and in one letter that all of them were "destitute of clothing." Just as interesting as the letter's contents are the curator's introduction and footnote to it. Alexis was illiterate --not an unusual thing at the time --and had someone else (probably the parish priest) write replies to the doctor's letters. The curator begins: "The translated text of this letter representative of many others written by the surly, irresponsible, pecunious, ungrateful ward and human guinea pig to his solicitous, merciful, and generous benefactor reads as follows:"

Dear Doctor:
I am surprised and mortified (at the same time) not to have received any answer to my letters, except by personal communication of William Morrison. However, I should have much desired to join you. I have even started to go there and had gotten as far as St. John, but illness caused me to go back. I was throwing up blood. I decided to write to you from St. John to let you know. I should have yielded to your desire expressed to me by Mr. Morrison if it had not been that I fell ill, as I just told you. In case you wish to have me with you again I should be very glad to join you with my family and in sending me some money, in settling my account you will see some money is due me. I should wish to have seven or eight Louis to take care of my family and at your request I should be ready to go, Sir, I shall wait for your answer with diligence. As I am thinking of cultivating my land myself, if I do not go with you, I should wish to have an answer from you about it. For if I began to cultivate my land I could not go. My wife and family join me to send you our regards (and also your wife), and I desire much to see you. And we end by wishing you good health and all sorts of prosperity in calling myself

Your Affectionate Servant,
Alexis St. Martin

After the letter, the curator chimes in again: "Prof. Henri David of the University of Chicago kindly prepared this literal translation from the original "French." ... The content of the letter prompts the reflection that in enduring fame, "Extremes Meet!" In this instance, Alexis St. Martin will continue to engage the attention of posterity because of the genius of William Beaumont."

Luckhardt's remarks are pregnant with problems, the least of which is that his swaggering opinion has no right place in an article describing the acquisitions of a university archive. But it is a fine example of a person of relative privilege whose compulsion to abuse working people will emerge from him at every opportunity, even where no opinion is asked. For another thing, it shows the way human research subjects have been viewed always: as the servants of their learned manipulators, who are human only in the mechanical sense, and who should be grateful to be in such distinguished company on any terms. Luckhardt's editors did not overrule his highbrow cretinism. They too believed that St. Martin was just a miscreant who stole an ounce of history's starlight from one of the great princes of modern science.

An interesting phenomenon within this tale is the way by which historians' agenda are achieved by choosing particular letters by St. Martin for quotation. For example, the Canadian's situation might be more sympathetically viewed if the reader is given the following item from a letter, quoted by Meyer, dated May 24, 1843, from Alexis to the Doctor: "...I have not forgot you. I have had some sickness in my family, and lost two of my children [including Alexis Jr.], and was unwell myself for the best part of a year."

Even Myer's book has been reigned in a bit for its elaborate discussion of the hero guinea pig. The original edition of 1912 has become a scarce and expensive item, but its publisher released a special reprint edition under an emended title in 1981. Of the two known images of Alexis at the time of publication, both of which were included by Myer, one was omitted, while pictures of upper-class persons -and mere bit-players in the epic tale --were included in the reprint.

From St. Martin's departure from Washington in 1833 until Beaumont's death in 1853, the doctor tried desperately to persuade his subject to come and resume the experiments with him, but no agreement was ever reached, and the two men never saw each other again. The main sticking point was that Alexis would not relocate without taking his family along, and he insisted that Beaumont arrange for their needs, i.e. find employment for Marie and set them up in some kind of lodging. While he was living in Canada he had to work his fields according to the iron law of the seasons that grips the mind of every farmer. The intermediaries sent by the surgeon included his son Israel Beaumont, but none were able to lure him to St. Louis. They did, however, observe his "wretched" poverty and his inclination to drink. His wife, who appears to have been a person of strong personality, insisted that she and the little ones come along for fear that they would starve without Alexis. On 26 June, 1836, for example, Alexis wrote, informing Dr. Beaumont that "My wife is not willing for me to go, for she thinks that I can do a great deal better to stay at home, for on my farm she thinks there will be a great deal more profit for me. ...I hope you won't be angry with me, for I can do better at home. I am much obliged to you for what you have done, and if it was in my power, I should do all I could for you with pleasure."

In one attempt to recruit the great lab rat back into service, Dr. Beaumont asked William Morrison, a fur trader, to visit him "if you can endure the disagreeable condescension of seeing Alexis...." In a letter to his cousin, Samuel Beaumont, he asks for him to bring Alexis to him "dead or alive, with or without his live stock." These remarks and many others illustrate the scientist's superior attitude towards his experimental subject. In an 1847 letter to his son, the doctor carefully instructs him not to become an equal to the illiterate man of the lower class:

"...You will take him in charge as a private servant in traveling. Keep him in his place, and strictly control his time and services. Allow no undue familiarity, or suffer him to take the slightest advantage of your age and inexperience... If he should... give you much trouble... discharge him at once... and proceed without him."

There are two reports of other medical groups attempting to obtain the services of Alexis St. Martin while Beaumont was still living, but neither were successful. One was when, in 1837, a group of physicians that promoted vegetarianism sought to bring the man and his fistula to Boston in the hopes of disproving Beaumont's standing conclusion that meat was easier to digest than veggies. Also, the Medical Society of London raised 300-400 British Pounds to induce Alexis to come over and show them the hole in 1840. These attempts worried Beaumont and caused him to sweeten his offers of compensation for St. Martin's services, but the subject was loyal to the man who had saved his life. It was only after Beaumont's death that Alexis brought his wares elsewhere.

Toward the end of his life Dr. Beaumont regretted his refusal to budge on his exclusion of St. Martin's family from the deal. Letters to friends reveal that he looked back on the whole affair as one that could have been resolved with a decisive investment of money, whether or not Alexis had sought to gain as much as possible from his services. Beaumont died in April 1853 from injuries suffered when he fell on ice-covered steps about one month earlier.

From April through July of 1856, a new and sadder chapter in Alexis' life took place under the influence of a true charlatan named "Dr. Bunting." As this episode unfolds we see that perhaps St. Martin too regretted the passing of his former employer. The tour included more than ten cities in the eastern US and Canada, where they stopped for a few days each: Boston, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Louisville, Montreal, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Toronto. Edward Bensley, a medical historian whose research has given new life to this intrepid human guinea pig, concludes that the pair must have stopped at many other sites. The medical men in all but one of the cities where the show was documented turned out to observe that Bunting was a fake and that the 62-year old man with the perforated chest was a sorry drunk. The considerable press exposure drew the attention of the circus master P. T. Barnum, but Alexis never found himself under the big top. Bunting's dreams of trips to Europe probably did not materialize, either.

Bunting was a snake-oil dealer of very ill repute before beginning his enterprise with our hero. In January 1850 he came to Montreal and advertised in a newspaper for a cure of stammering and stuttering. He used the name of Dr. William Marsden of Quebec City as a reference to his integrity and that of the treatment. Bunting was rather clumsy in doing this, because Marsden immediately had a disclaimer published in a respectable medical journal, stating that he had never witnessed any such cure, but that he had met Bunting. The charlatan had introduced himself as a member of the College of Surgeons of London, and when Marsden checked with the college, his claim was proven false.

Alexis and the "impostor, swindler, and villain," as Bunting was to become known in the press, visited Mrs. Beaumont in St. Louis in June 1856, paying his respects to the widow of his former boss. The bogus medicine man regaled the old lady with stories of how he knew the publisher of her late husband's works and how he would be republishing them when he and St. Martin extended their tour into Europe. Alexis, who was described by the doctor's son, Israel Beaumont, as "a thin, meager-faced, much bronzed little Frenchman," asked after the other children and wished the whole family well.

The other episode that stands apart from the ridiculous spectacles of the rest of the tour was when St. Martin was examined under the supervision of Dr. Francis Gurney Smith at Philadelphia. Smith conducted a few more experiments that were published in the Philadelphia Medical Examiner, but these were generally regarded as of little importance in comparison with Beaumont's. It seems to be the one occasion in which Bunting was able to rub elbows with real scientists through his influence over the famous human subject. Dr. Smith reported that on "May 6th, 1856, at 10 AM, two ounces of dry wheat bread were given to St. Martin, which he masticated deliberately and swallowed. At 12:30 PM, the contents of the stomach were removed by Dr. Bunting in the presence of a number of medical gentlemen and students, and carefully preserved for immediate analysis." He also mentioned that "during all the experiments St. Martin maintained his usual good health, was in excellent spirits, and took his food with appetite."

Myer's biography of Beaumont states that Alexis and his family were living in Cavendish, Vermont on 1870, where he earned his living by "chopping wood by the cord." This is remarkable because the man was 76 years old at the time --perhaps it is an affectionate, contemporary exaggeration of his health and activity at that age. His four surviving children, though grown and married, were living with him in abject poverty. At that time he corresponded frequently with Israel Beaumont.

In 1879 St. Martin returned to Canada, settling in St. Thomas de Joliette, very close to his birthplace. Shortly after the move, he wrote to Israel Beaumont: "...I am beginning to get old, and I have been ill for six years, and I will not hide from you that I am very poor. ...I am suffering a little from my gastric fistula, and my digestion grows worse than ever. ...In granting me your charity, ...you will not be inconvenienced for long, as I am old and sick."

Another very late description of our hero comes from a certain Judge Baby of the town of Joliette (near Berthier), and was preserved by William Osler in his introduction to the 1929 reprint of Beaumont's book:

"When I came to know St. Martin it must have been a few years before his death. A law suit 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.

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."

The judge's report is interesting because it has Alexis remembering trips to Europe and it describes him as "tall." The Army record of his height was quoted by Osler as 5"5', but the rural poor in those days were often much shorter. Apparently he was taller than average. There were at least two known attempts to get the punctured old geezer to Europe, described above, but there has been no sure evidence, from the other side of the Atlantic, of these trips. A small bottle of Alexis' gastric juices did make the trip, though, in 1834. Dr. Beaumont had sent a sample to the renowned Swedish chemist Benjamin Silliman, but he was disappointed to learn much later that because the package had taken almost five months (including the heat of July and August) to reach Sweden, the chemist did not see how it could be assured the stuff still retained the properties of fresh gastric juice, and he declined to analyse the specimen.

Alexis St. Martin died at St. Thomas de Joliette, Quebec on June 24, 1880, and was buried in the cemetery of that parish on the 28th. A Catholic funeral mass was pronounced by the pastor, Rev. Chicoine. The body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that it could not be brought into the church, but was instead left outside during the service. The family had refused "most pressing" requests from members of the medical profession for an autopsy and for the purchase of his famous stomach. Dr. William Osler, for example, wanted the three-holed gut to reside permanently in the Army Medical Museum in Washington. Relatives even kept Alexis' body at home much longer than usual during a hot spell of weather so as to let it decompose as much as possible and be of as little use as possible to science. Also, they dug the grave 8 feet below the surface instead of six to prevent "resurrectionists" in the employ of doctors from robbing the corpse. Marie St. Martin lived for several years after her husband's death.

The author recently saw a part of William Osler's brain, drowned in a jar of formaldehyde, at Philadelphia's Mutter Museum. That man knew what he liked.

Some eighty years after the great guinea pig passed away, members of a fine Canadian group decided that the man whose humble stomach allowed us to learn so much should be acknowledged for the contribution he made. With a level of gratitude that is all too rare among medical professionals, they declared:

"In recalling the memory of Alexis St. Martin the Canadian Physiological Society wished to encompass all the passive collaborators of science, all the patients who without prospect of immediate benefit contribute nonetheless to the growth and development of science. But most of all the society wishes to pay homage to Alexis, the uneducated man who consented to make the long trips of several months' duration in the great canoes, to be separated from his family for years on end, and to endure who knows how many other forgotten discomforts, in order to be of service to that pioneer of physiology William Beaumont."

They then formed a committee which located St. Martin's grave site, looked up his descendants, and then gave him a plaque and a proper ceremony. Finally they all gathered to unveil the bronze plaque, engraved in both French and English, with a cross in the center. The English, which reads a little less graciously than the French, says:

In Memory of Alexis Bidagan dit St. Martin
Born April 18, 1794 at Berthier
Died June 24, 1880 at St. Thomas
Buried June 28, 1880 in an unmarked grave close by this tablet.
Grievously injured by the accidental discharge of a shotgun on June 6, 1822 at Machillimackinac, Michigan, he made a miraculous recovery under the care of Dr. William Beaumont, Surgeon in the United States Army. After his wounds had healed, he was left with an opening into the stomach and became the subject of Dr. Beaumont's pioneering work on the physiology of the stomach. Through his affliction he served all humanity.
Erected by the Canadian Physiological Society, June 1962.

We, the human guinea pigs of today, who like Alexis St. Martin sacrifice our health and comfort, who travel far from our homes and families for uncertain payment, and who lay down our flesh for the benefit of an ungrateful humanity, should cherish the memory of this noble pioneer. Let him be called our patron saint, our hero, or our historical poster child, but let's never forget him. The awareness of our own history is an armor by which we fend off society's abuse, and which holds our pride close against our hearts. None are so needy of this armor than ourselves, the wandering lab rats of the modern medical jungle.

For Further reading:

  • Beaumont, William. Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion. Boston: no pub, 1929. With a biographical essay by Sir William Osler.
  • [Beaumont, William]. Joseph Lovell. "A Case of Wounded Stomach." Medical Recorder 8 (January 1825): 14-19.
  • Bensley, Edward H. "Alexis St. Martin and Dr. Bunting." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 44 (March-April 1970): 127-32.
  • Committee of Commemoration of Alexis Bidagan dit St. Martin of the Canadian Physiological Society. "Alexis St. Martin Commemorated." Physiologist 6 (1963): 63-65.
  • Horsman, Reginald. Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America's First Great Medical Scientist. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
  • Luckhardt, Arno B. "The Dr. William Beaumont Collection of the University of Chicago." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 5 (May 1939) 535-63.
  • Meyer, Jesse Shire, comp. Life and Letters of Dr. William Beaumont, including hitherto unpublished data concerning the case of Alexis St. Martin, by Jesse S. Meyer... with an introduction by Sir William Osler... with fifty-eight illustrations. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1912.
  • Myer, Jesse S., et al., William Beaumont: A Pioneer American Physiologist. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1981.
  • Numbers, Ronald L. "William Beaumont and the Ethics of Human Experimentation." Journal of the History of Biology 12 (Spring 1979) 113-35.
  • "The Window in St. Martin's Stomach" in Readers' Digest, October 1951.
  • Smith, Francis G. "Experiments Upon Digestion." Medical Examiner 12 (July & September 1856) 385-94; 513-18.
  • Widdler, Keith R. Reveille Till Taps: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1780-1895. (1972).
  • Williams, Meade C. Early Mackinac: A Sketch. (1987).
  • Osborn, Chase. "Beaumont -- Citizen." Physician and Surgeon 22 (December 1900) 588-91.