Friday, June 24, 2011

William Beaumont

I spent last weekend at Mackinac Island in northern Lake Huron. It’s an interesting little place that you reach by ferry and that does not allow any vehicles (except for a few fire engines and ambulances). The ferry ride is dominated by a view of the Mackinac Bridge (the “Mighty Mac”) connecting the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. It is a gorgeous piece of engineering (read about its construction in Henry Petroski’s book Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of American). On the island, people walk, bike, and ride in horse-drawn carriages. An old 18th century fort dominates the coastline on the south side of the island, and the nearby town has many shops and restaurants (a cynic might call the town a tourist trap). We visited the fort, observed the firing of a civil war-era cannon, had a carriage tour, stopped at “Arch Rock,” and saw the famous Grand Hotel. Last week happened to the their annual Lilac festival, which included an actual “Dog and Pony Show” (the theme this year was board games, and the little terriers carrying big Scrabble pieces on their backs won first prize).

Buying fudge is a Mackinac Island tradition. We stopped at one of the iconic fudge shops, Murdick’s Fudge, and bought a few slabs. One of the Murdick clan, Ryan Murdick, attended Oakland University, where I teach, and obtained a master’s degree in physics. He and I published several papers together, including one about the bidomain model of the electrical properties of cardiac tissue (see Chapter 7 of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology), one about magnetocardiography (the magnetic field produced by the heart, Chapter 8), and one about how eddy currents induced in electroencephalogram electrodes can influence measurements of the magnetoencephalogram (Chapter 8; the effect on the MEG is very small). The papers are:

Murdick, R. and B. J. Roth, 2003, Magneto-encephalogram artifacts caused by electro-encephalogram electrodes. Med. & Biol. Eng. & Comput.,41:203-205.

Murdick, R. A. and B. J. Roth, 2004, A comparative model of two mechanisms from which a magnetic field arises in the heart. J. Appl. Phys., 95:5116-5122.

Roth, B. J., S. G. Patel, and R. A. Murdick, 2006, The effect of the cut surface during electrical stimulation of a cardiac wedge preparation. IEEE Trans. Biomed. Eng., 53:1187-1190.

I wasn’t expecting to find material for this blog on Mackinac Island, but I did. In 1822, Alexis St. Martin was accidently shot in the abdomen in a small trading post near Fort Mackinac. Dr. William Beaumont was summoned to treat St. Martin, and was able to save his life. However, the wound healed in an odd way, leaving an opening providing access to the inside of his stomach.

Readers of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will appreciate what happened next. The resourceful Beaumont took advantage of the situation to conduct experiments on digestion. He tied different foods to a string, threaded them into St. Martin’s stomach, left them to digest for a while, and then pulled them out to see what had happened. These ground-breaking experiments were instrumental in establishing how digestion works. I toured a small museum dedicated to Beaumont, which describes these experiments in graphic (perhaps too graphic) detail.

I am interested in Beaumont not just because of his experiments studying digestion. Beaumont Hospital, in Royal Oak Michigan, is the clinical partner for a new medical school recently established at Oakland University. The first class of students at the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine arrives this August. This will be a landmark event in OU’s history, and we are all excited about it.

I can’t help but be intrigued by the juxtaposition of these two stories: William Beaumont’s experiments on Alexis St. Martin, and the establishment of a new medical school bearing Beaumont’s name. St. Martin lived into his 80’s. I expect our new medical school will have a similarly long and productive life.

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