Guts and Gore

Last week we looked at the millions of microscopic life-forms which live within us and which help not just our digestive processes, but contribute overall to our health and well-being.

This week, here is a bizarre story of how we started to get insights into our digestive system (quite literally, as you will see).

The year was 1822, the place Mackinac Island, near the Canada-US border. A young fur-trader called Alexis St. Martin got shot in the stomach—how and why and by whom is not clear, but probably an accident.

He was treated by Dr. William Beaumont, a US Army surgeon who was stationed at a nearby army post. St Martin had a hole in his stomach where he was shot. The treatment seemed to work and he recovered, but the hole did not close. For the first two weeks or so, whatever he ate, came out through the. But after that, though the hole was still open, the food did not come out and his digestive system seemed to be working normally. And though the stomach-wound healed, there was still a hole there—a window to his innards. Since sstomach acids are very strong, they essentially disinfected the wound from the inside out, and so it was safe to not sew it up.

Dr. Beaumont saw this as a miraculous opportunity to study the digestive system—he could literally look into the stomach as it worked. He paid St Martin to work in his house doing domestic chores with the understanding that he would allow the doctor to carry out experiments. St Martin was not happy, but did not have much choice.

Dr. Beaumont carried out a variety of experiments. For instance, he often watched the digestion happening in St Martin’s stomach after he ate. Sometimes, he let him eat and then retrieved the contents of the stomach later through the hole to see how much digestion had taken place. He would put food in a mesh bag and then dip it into St Martin’s stomach and take it out after some time. He even licked the inside of St. Martin’s stomach and found that the acid taste manifested only when the stomach started to digest food.

Over the next several years, Beaumont observed and recorded everything that went into St. Martin’s stomach. He took samples of gastric secretions and sent them to chemists for analysis.

Gory though it sounds, and medical ethics of today would probably never allow these kind of experiments, it has to be said that Dr. Beaumont’s work laid the foundation for modern ways of studying and understanding physiology. His work helped us to understand how the basic process of digestion actually occurs.

Weirdly enough, even today, in the US and some other parts of the world, the study of the digestion in cows is undertaken by deliberately making a hole or cannula in a cow’s stomach. The hole is fitted with a cannula which acts as a porthole-like device that allows access to the stomach of the cow, to perform research and analysis of the digestive system. These are called cannulated or fistulated cows. Apart from research, this also helps sick cows by allowing vets to insert healthy microbes into the sick cow’s gut. But I wonder if there can’t be ways just to give the sick cow medicines orally. Making a permanent hole in a cow’s stomach doesn’t seem a very nice thing to do! In fact, any animal rights groups find the practice objectionable, and are campaigning against it.

Here is to the spirit of science, of exploration and discovery. But strongly rooted in ethics!

–Meena

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