Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont

Written by Jason Karlawish
Review by Susan Zabolotny

Dr. William Beaumont did not realize right away that the gunshot blast that blew a hole in the side of Alexis St. Martin would begin a lifelong connection between both men. The year is 1822; Alexis is a humble fur trader living on the army outpost at Mackinac Island, Michigan, where Dr. Beaumont is the attending physician. They will be tied to one other for more than 30 years, as Alexis fulfills a promise to God and Dr. Beaumont fulfills a promise to himself.

In his determination to overcome his humble beginnings and reach the rank of general surgeon, Dr. Beaumont’s desire turns to obsession as the hole in Alexis’s stomach remains open and his in-depth study of digestion begins. His experiments are performed three or four times a day, with different types of food lowered into the hole by a string and left for various lengths of time.

Unable to work, Alexis becomes a charity case. When the town no longer consents to pay for his keep, Dr. Beaumont takes him into his own home. This causes added stress for his wife, who wants him to begin a private practice in St. Louis. He refuses to leave the army because it might jeopardize his study. His theories are ridiculed by some and exalted by others. Sometimes he forgets that Alexis is a human being with feelings and desires of his own.

Alexis would not be subjected to such experiments today, and the brilliant Dr. Beaumont might not have to strive so hard for recognition. This book was very well researched. Novels based on true stories can be challenging to write because authors must work that much harder, but Dr. Karlawish, a professor of medicine and medical ethics, has succeeded admirably. I recommend this well-written and fascinating book to anyone interested in early medicine.