This was the first great American contribution to physiology. While stationed at Fort Mackinac, near Michilimackinac, on Mackinac Island, Michigan, close to the Canadian border— then and now an extremely remote location— Beaumont had been presented with a unique opportunity in the person of one of his patients, the young French Canadian soldier Alexis St. Martin, who was left with a permanent gastric fistula after suffering a gunshot wound to the stomach. Beaumont's experiments and observations, conducted between 1825 and 1831, conclusively established the chemical nature of digestion, the presence and role of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, the temperature of the stomach during digestion, the movement of the stomach walls and the relative digestibility of certain foods—all of which revolutionized current theories of the physiology of digestion.
The most important presentation copy extant of Beaumont's work is the copy Beaumont inscribed to his longtime friend James W. Kingsbury, an army officer whom Beaumont had met when both men were stationed in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in the early 1830s. Kingsbury was a man of some prominence in St. Louis, where he had married a local heiress, Julia Antoinette Cabanne, and acquired from his father-in-law a 425-acre tract of land that is now home to Kingsbury Place, one of St. Louis's most elegant residential communities. In 1835 Beaumont moved his family to St. Louis, where he remained the rest of his life; his decision to settle in the city, although motivated by professional ambition, certainly also owed something to the presence of his friend Kingsbury there.
Kingsbury was quite familiar with Beaumont's researches on digestion, as Beaumont had continued his experiments with Alexis St. Martin during his tenure at Prairie du Chien. When Beaumont decided to publish his Experiments and Observations by subscription, Kingsbury, who by then was back to St. Louis, acted as one of Beaumont's agents, distributing prospectuses for the book to local booksellers and other likely purchasers. The Beaumont archives at Washington University's Becker Medical Library includes a letter that Kingsbury wrote to Beaumont on July 14, 1833; this is the earliest letter written to Beaumont to contain a reference to Beaumont's book:
"Your book will be valuable to any one whether a medical man, or a plain farmer, especially when Diet is all the rage as it is now. I hope it may prove as profitable to your purse, as it has to your standing in the great world, where you are located you do not require Alex's intestines to gain you a name or practice. Send me on some 4 or 5 of the prospectus. I shall take one or two copies, my friends will take some & I trust that the talent of the country will have & manifest a feeling for kindred abilities."
At the end of his letter Kingsbury repeats his request:
"Send your prospectus as soon as you can we have about 16 doctors here to be examined."
Even though Beaumont's scientific advisors urged him to have his book issued by established medical publishers such as Lippincott in Philadelphia, Beaumont decided to self-publish his book. He had it typeset at the press of the town newspaper in Plattsburgh, New York, and sold through a prospectus and agents. The Beaumont archives in St. Louis include a remarkably complete account of Beaumont's adventure in self-publishing, which included his placing some copies of the first edition for sale in Boston. These were issued with a cancel title and the imprint Lilly, Wait & Co., 1834.
Only one other presentation copy of this work is recorded: the Haskell F. Norman copy, which sold at Christie's NY in 1998. That was one of fifty copies which Beaumont had bound in full leather. Considering normal book production practice, it is likely that the special full-leather copies were produced after the main edition. The Norman copy was inscribed by Beaumont to William Dunlap, whose relationship with Beaumont is unknown.
Dibner, Heralds of Science no. 130. Horblit, One Hundred Books Famous in Science no. 10. Lilly, Notable Medical Books p. 185. Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 152. Norman, One Hundred Books Famous in Medicine, no. 61. Peters & Fulton, William Beaumont's Letter to his New Haven Bookseller, Hezekiah Howe. . . , pp. 1-17. Horsman, Frontier Doctor: William Beaumont, America's First Great Medical Scientist. Myer, William Beaumont: A Pioneer American Physiologist. Hunter, Kingsbury Place: The First Two Hundred Years, pp. 5, 7-8.