June 6 – Hole In One

Today’s Factismal: An accidental gunshot to Alexis St. Martin’s stomach led to the discovery of how we digest our food.

How would you like to get paid to eat food? Though it might sound like a dream job at first, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the interview: in order to get the job, Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the stomach! As a young fur trapper, Alexis traveled all over Canada looking for beaver (which was much in demand at the time). While he was visiting the Mackinac Island trading post on June 5, 1822, the musket of one of the other trappers accidentally went off and hit poor Alexis in the stomach.

The US Army surgeon by the name of William Beaumont at the nearby fort took care of Alexis and kept him alive until the wound healed. But, instead of healing over, the edges of his stomach healed to the edges of his skin creating a hole into his innards. Beaumont was no dummy; he realized that this provided a unique opportunity to find out what happened to food in the stomach and to increase our understanding of how digestion works. At the time about all that was known about digestion was that food went in one end and used food came out the other.

For the next eleven years, Beaumont kept Alexis as a servant. Though Alexis chopped wood, carried water, and did the other things expected of a servant, his main job was to lie still as the doctor dangled food on a string in his stomach. By observing the changes in the food and recording Alexis’ changes while the food was being digested, Beaumont was able to tease out the digestive processes that happened in the stomach. Beaumont published the results in 1838 in a tome called Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion; it is still used by medical students today.

If you’d like to help advance medicine but don’t like the idea of getting shot in the stomach, there is an easier way to make a significant contribution. The folks over at Cell Slider need sharp-eyed citizen scientists (Hey! that’s you!) to look over the results of experiments to cure cancer. All you have to do is examine images and determine if the cells are healthy or not (it is easier than it sounds). If you’d like to do your part, then head on over to
http://www.cellslider.net/

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