Jason Karlawish


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Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Open Wound is a novel crafted from the extensive documents of an unsettling, little-known, yet remarkable episode in the history of medicine.

In the summer of 1822, Dr. William Beaumont was practicing medicine at a rugged military outpost on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, part of the Michigan territory.  His assignment as Assistant Surgeon, US Army represented about the best circumstances he could expect from his training as a medical apprentice without a university education.  In addition to soldiers and officers, Beaumont sometimes attended patients from the American Fur Company, whose warehouses shared the island's harbor.  On June 6, an accidentally discharged gunshot cratered the abdomen of an indentured, French-speaking Canadian trapper.  Fortunately for him, Beaumont served during the War of 1812 and knew how to care for devastating wounds.   With the surgeon's medical attention and willingness to house and feed the hapless trapper, Alexis St. Martin's body unexpectedly survived the assault.  But his wound didn't fully heal.  As a result, it left an opening in his flesh and ribs that allowed access to his damaged stomach.  Through the fistula, Beaumont dangled bits of food, collected "gastric liquor," and made unprecedented observations about the process of digestion.  

His clever and meticulously documented experiments, conducted on the captive St. Martin over several years, corrected prevailing assumptions about digestion.  Once thought to depend on grinding and putrification, normal digestion, Beaumont observed, was a healthy chemical process.  Any signs of putrification or fermentation indicated pathology.  In 1833 Beaumont published his thesis on the chemistry of digestion in Experiments and Observations of the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion.  Shortly before completing the book, he received a temporary leave from his military service to restart his research in Washington.  But to carry on his project, Beaumont had to persuade St. Martin-who entered and exited his physician-researcher's life several times before-to leave his growing family in Canada and once again become a research subject.  St. Martin does return, with pay, and briefly accepts his role.  But he also confronts Beaumont about whether the long confinement on Mackinac Island was more necessary for the patient's survival or the doctor's research agenda.  Or for the doctor's subsequently improved station in life. 

Although some of Beaumont's academically trained colleagues found fault with his methodologies, the farmer's son and frontier doctor did achieve a gratifying level of professional accomplishment and wealth.  To enjoy them, he had to set aside humiliations he experienced along the way, accept his lot after military service as an ordinary practitioner in St. Louis,  and weather an unforeseen turn near the end of life.    

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