One of the important historical figures of Clinton County, who is not often mentioned, is Dr. William Beaumont (1785 – 1853), considered “The Father of Gastric Physiology.”
His name is honored across the nation on schools and hospitals and locally on historic markers, a SUNY Plattsburgh building, and a local medical practice.
As a result of his research on the human digestive system, the American Gastroenterological Association has been awarding a prestigious prize in his name since 1976. The late Dr. Douglas Skopp describes Dr. Beaumont as the greatest American physiologist of the 19th century. Local gastroenterologist, Dr. Paolo Fedi, well known for his presentations on the life of Dr. Beaumont, reminds us that “Dr. Beaumont was the first to define acid as the most important agent in the digestion of food and the first one to study the digestion’s process in a live human being. But what I think is the most important accomplishment is the fact that in 1833 he was able to demonstrate that stress can affect the digestion process and that many GI diseases are self-inflicted as we eat too much, too fast, and too late. He was an incredible physician and scientist. We owe him a mural in this town.”
Before Beaumont’s early death in 1853, he was President of the Missouri Medical Society, published a book on his research, and taught surgery at St. Louis University.
Beaumont was a teacher in Champlain, Clinton County, and later after studying medicine, he joined the US Army in 1812 as a surgeon’s mate. He was in Plattsburgh during the Battle on September 11, 1814. In 1815 he resigned from the army and settled here, setting up practice on the corner of Margaret and Bridge Streets.
His cousin Samuel Beaumont, who was born in Champlain, studied under him, and continued with a practice in Plattsburgh after Dr. Beaumont left in 1820. He returned in 1833 to have his research book published here. It was the research recorded in his book that earned him his national acclaim.
As a point of fact, the research, recorded in Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion (1838), did not happen here but began in Fort Mackinac, Michigan, where a voyageur for the American Fur Company was shot and only survived through the efforts of Dr. Beaumont.
All was well except the man’s stomach wound would not heal, giving Beaumont the opportunity to directly observe gastric digestion and experiment with digesting food using gastric juices. His conclusions were groundbreaking. When you take an antacid, you can thank Dr. Beaumont for discovering the reason for your discomfort.
There are many twists and turns in the William Beaumont story written by experts across the nation who conclude with their highest respect for his contributions. Thanks go out to local historians, the late Drs. Bruce Butterfield and Eugene Link, and former Regent of the New York State Education Department James Dawson for their work in sharing the story of William Beaumont in Bicentennial of William Beaumont, M.D., 1785-1853, available at no cost from the Clinton County Historical Association.
One of Dr. Fedi’s presentations is available for viewing here.
Illustrations, from above: Portrait of Dr. William Beaumont from a painting for Petrolagar Laboratories, Inc, by Tom Jones; and an illustration from Beaumont’s Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice and the Physiology of Digestion, 1838.