A physician’s obsession

How a 19th-century doctor faced the demands of career and ambition.

William Beaumont, M.D., “the father of gastric physiology,” achieved fame in a less complicated time. To further his understanding of digestion, he began studying a fur trapper left with a permanent hole in his stomach following a shotgun accident in 1822. Born in Lebanon, Conn., Beaumont had skipped medical school, apprenticed to a Vermont doctor, then enlisted as a surgeon’s mate in the War of 1812. Those were simpler times.

Or were they? In his novelized account of Beaumont’s life, Jason Karlawish, M.D., professor of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, conveys the difficulties confronting a farmer’s son who sought not only to make a name in medical research but to earn a handsome income in a location pleasing to his wife. Karlawish suggests that 19th-century pressures on physicians resemble those of the 21st: competing with better-credentialed colleagues; working for unsympathetic bosses; negotiating with a recalcitrant study subject; and balancing between family and career.

Beaumont did achieve recognition—faculty at the School of Medicine named a club, a lecture series, and a room after him in 1920. Speaking in the Beaumont Room in December, Karlawish said that Beaumont’s desire to understand the digestive system spurred him to virtually enslave the injured fur trapper. And that, Karlawish said, reminded him of the tragedy of teenager Jesse Gelsinger, who died in a 1999 gene therapy experiment. “Those research pressures,” said Karlawish, “can make you make decisions that you might not otherwise make.”

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