The man who had a gun hole in his stomach – and the surgeon who experimented on him in

Rumbles: A Curious History of the Gut 

By Elsa Richardson (Wellcome Collection £18.99, 336 pp) 

It’s funny how much a life can change in one terrible instant. For the young French-Canadian outdoorsman Alexis St Martin, that instant came on June 6, 1822, at a fur-trading post on Mackinac Island, between Michigan and Canada.

A shotgun was accidentally fired — from a distance ‘not over three feet’, according to an eyewitness — directly into St Martin’s torso. He keeled over, his midriff a mess of torn fabric and flesh. If you didn’t know what would later happen — and who would have, at the time?— you’d have simply said he was lucky to be alive.

For alive he was. A US army surgeon called William Beaumont rushed to St Martin and kept him that way. And as if that wasn’t remarkable enough, Beaumont discovered something downright astonishing while investigating the victim’s wounds.

A gaping hole had opened up in St Martin’s side that allowed access to his digestive system. This fistula — to give it its medical name — persisted in such a way that any interested observer could dangle food directly into St Martin’s stomach and witness all the gut juices in action.

An illustration of Dr William Beaumont tapping into the stomach of Alexis St Martin

An illustration of Dr William Beaumont tapping into the stomach of Alexis St Martin

So, naturally, that’s what Beaumont did — in experiment after experiment. The surgeon now had a front-row seat to one of the natural world’s most important, most hidden processes. His patient had become a living biology lab.

It gets worse. Beaumont subsequently trapped St Martin into his employ, and declined to stitch up the hole as he’d promised, all so he could continue his dubious research over years. At one point, he even licked the unfortunate’s stomach wall — in order, in the words of the academic Elsa Richardson, to ‘judge its acidity’. Eurgh.

St Martin’s is just one of the many stories in Richardson’s Rumbles, a brilliant new cultural history of the gut. This book comes at an apposite time. If there has been one particular health movement over the past few years, it’s been the rise of huge interest in the gut: All those books, apps and yogurts designed to tend the delicate microbiomes in our tummies.

If you want to be happier, healthier and more attractive, modern science tells us, then you’ve got to start paying attention to what’s going on in the gurglier regions of your body.

Except, as Rumbles makes clear, people have been paying attention to those regions — and how they connect with the rest of the human body — for centuries. Millennia, even.

No less a figure than Galen — the classical physician who’s considered the father of modern medicine — believed that the sophisticated structure of the human digestive system is what enabled humans to have a culture in the first place.

Animals, you see, are slaves to the random urges and expurgations of their bellies. Whereas we can pace out our poos, and get stuff done in the meantime.

And human culture has responded in kind — giving the gut a prominence that, even though we don’t often care to think about it, is undeniable. Phrases such as ‘gut instinct’ and ‘they’ve got guts’ speak to that prominence, as well as demonstrating how we’ve always had a sense that, somehow, this ‘confederacy of organs’ does more than just process our grub.

US army surgeon Dr William Beaumont

Shotgun victim Alexis St Martin

US Army Surgeon Dr William Beaumont, left, and his patient Alexis St Martin

In this respect, the culture has always been ahead of the science. It’s a relatively recent discovery, for instance, that the gut has an independent nervous system and can function quite freely from the brain. But that old Greek, Plato, would have told you that the stomach has a mind of its own — and is responsible for baser emotions such as anger and lust.

Our bowel movements have even moved the course of politics and civil engineering. Back in 1858, when the WCs lining the Thames dumped their contents directly into the river, a particularly hot summer caused noxious vapours — the Great Stink — to rise from the water and engulf the Houses of Parliament. For once, the politicians weren’t the only reason to hold your nose in Westminster.

The book reveals that St Martin lived for another 58 years, dying in 1880 aged 78

The book reveals that St Martin lived for another 58 years, dying in 1880 aged 78

A debate was had, then a bill drafted and ratified to construct a proper sewer network under the capital — all within 18 days. This is, apparently, a parliamentary record, proving that MPs really can do things when they put their noses to it.

The subsequent sewer network, masterminded by Joseph Bazalgette and completed in 1875, is still in use today. Such is the history of our guts. Good things come from the muck, but worse things, too.

Speaking of which, what happened to St Martin and Beaumont — the man with the hole in his belly and the surgeon exploiting him — in the end?

Well, Beaumont’s research truly did expand the scientific community’s knowledge of the gut and its functions. But the better news is that St Martin managed to escape his white-coated captor. He died in 1880, aged 78, more than a half-century after that one terrible instant.

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