In 1822, a young Canadian paddler named Guillaume Roleau is near death after suffering a gunshot wound to the stomach. His recovery is dramatic and scientifically important. The injury has resulted in a traumatic fistula--a porthole between the outside world and Guillaume's abdominal cavity and organs. The treating physician, Dr. William Barber, immediately recognizes the incredible opportunity for medical research and conducts a lengthy series of experiments on the process of human digestion.

Guillaume--patient, research subject, and guest in the doctor's cabin--is rowdy and frequently uncooperative. He continues to participate in the grisly experiments at least partially out of affection for the physician's wife, Julia, who helps nurse him back to health as well as providing emotional sustenance.

Julia ultimately makes a large, uncredited contribution to Dr. Barber's research. At her husband's request, she has sexual relations with Guillaume so that the unreliable man will remain with the doctor until the experiments are all completed. The efforts of this tragic trio result in a landmark textbook on gastrointestinal physiology authored by Dr. Barber and Julia's illegitimate son, Jacob, sired by Guillaume Roleau.


Loosely based on the famous medical experiments carried out on Alexis St. Martin by Dr. William Beaumont, "Children of Hunger" emphasizes the role of human emotion in scientific research. The story highlights the terrible anxiety and cost sometimes associated with discovery. The three main characters--William, Julia, and Guillaume--are all deeply wounded individuals and in some ways, incomplete human beings.

The title of the story is interesting since each main character has a unique "hunger": sexual desire and a vexed appetite (Guillaume), an insatiable lust for knowledge and discovery (William), and the craving for love and want of a child (Julia). Dr. William Barber is a fascinating physician-scientist whose obsession with experimentation requires sacrifices from the two people he professes to care for the most.

The story raises important questions about the ethics of medical research, the perils of obsession with scientific discovery, and the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship. "Children of Hunger" can be taught alongside Richard Selzer's "Alexis St. Martin" (in Confessions of a Knife).


The story also appeared in One Story.

Primary Source

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction


New York

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