A new guide to the William Beaumont Collection is now available on the Special Collection Research Center's website. William Beaumont (1785-1853) was a surgeon in the United States Army and pioneer in gastroenterology. He is best known for the experiments he conducted on the digestive tract of French-Canadian fur trapper, Alexis St. Martin, between 1825 and 1833. On June 6, 1822, Dr. Beaumont was summoned to treat Alexis St. Martin on Mackinac Island (Beaumont was then serving as a post surgeon at Fort Mackinac), for gunshot wounds in the stomach. St. Martin survived, but with a permanent hole, or gastrocutaneous fistula, in his stomach. For eight years Dr. Beaumont used this opening into St. Martin's stomach for hundreds of physiological studies of the digestive system. The experiments demonstrated the importance of gastric juice in digesting food, and proved that the process of digestion is essentially a chemical process. He published his findings in Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion (Plattsburgh, NY: F. P. Allen, 1833). The book cemented Dr. Beaumont's legacy as the father of gastric physiology, and ushered in a new era of experimental physiology.
Framed portrait miniature in brown leather case - William Beaumont, Deborah Greene Beaumont, Israel Greene Beaumont, Sarah Beaumont, Lucretia Beaumont, circa 1833
The William Beaumont Collection was donated to the University of Chicago in 1936 by Beaumont's grandson, Mr. Ethan Allen Beaumont, and his wife, Mrs. Katherine Rhode Beaumont of DePere, Wisconsin. The collection contains correspondence, medical documents, legal documents, ephemera, photographs, artwork, and numerous artifacts belonging to William Beaumont and members of his family. Highlights include Beaumont's surgical instruments, mortar and pestle, watch, knife, razor, and leather change purse. The collection also contains a cast iron key to Fort Mackinac, Michigan.
Medical instructions and recipes written for Israel Greene Beaumont by William Beaumont "in case of sickness by the way," undated
Cast iron key to Fort Mackinac
The collection represents an important part of medical history. Additionally, scholars of American military history will find the collection of interest; particularly material in Series I. Dr. Beaumont served as an army medical officer throughout most of his life, and saw action in the War of 1812. He was stationed at Fort Niagara, New York; Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wisconsin; Fort Crawford in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin; and Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. It is interesting to note that the Beaumonts became close friends of Robert E. Lee and his family when Dr. Beaumont was stationed at Jefferson Barracks between 1834 and 1839. The collection contains a few photographs and a cane-seated chair given to the Beaumonts by the Lees.
Generally, archival collections are not as object-heavy as this collection. The William Beaumont Collection stands out among the holdings of the Special Collections Research Center for its sheer number of artifacts. Be it portraits, a watch, a pair of spectacles, or even a sword, the objects in the collection bring to life the story of an early nineteenth-century physician and his family.
Gold watch; open face; stem winding; belonged to William Beaumont
L to R: Candle mold, fur trade-era knife used by William Beaumont and his son, steelyard balance