Will Byrnes's Reviews > Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont

Open Wound by Jason Karlawish
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bookshelves: american-history, public-health, science, author-request

Dr. William Beaumont, the primary focus of Dr. Jason Karlawish's historical novel, Open Wound, was a real person, a medical pioneer who researched the workings of the human stomach, revolutionizing our understanding of that crucial organ, and informing both dietary wisdom and treatment for gastric ills from that time forward. The way he was able to learn so much was a happy accident, well, happy for him. A Canadian trapper named Alexis St. Martin was in the wrong place at the wrong time, an American Fur Company store on Mackinac Island, when a shotgun accidentally discharged, wounding him critically. Beaumont, an army medical officer, was summoned to the scene. Through his ministrations, and in defiance of a cost-conscious Fur Company business manager, Beaumont, miraculously, saved St. Martin's life. Because the blast to the 18-year-old man’s stomach was so severe, it never healed properly, leaving him with a significant, and permanent perforation in his side. St Martin's loss in cosmetic appeal was science's gain as the trapper's savior subsequently dedicated decades of his life to looking through this window into the human stomach to study how gastric fluids work.

Karlawish introduces the doctor to us as an idealistic, ambitious young man. Eager to apply the self-help advice offered by none other than Benjamin Franklin, he strives to attain, as close as he possibly can, moral perfection. This is a decent man wanting to do good in the world, but also one with considerable personal ambition. It is not long before Beaumont's ambition, his dream of professional respect and a comfortable living, lead him to treat the damaged trapper as a lifelong guinea pig. St. Martin was no pure victim here. He took advantage of Beaumont's need whenever he could, to extract money from the doctor, financial support for himself and his fondness for alcohol. It made for an odd, on-again off-again sort of co-dependance.

In the hands of a seasoned teller of tales, we might have felt the tension of Beaumont falling so short of his ideals, sad maybe at how he struggles to seek fame and fortune, at least in part at the expense of his test subject. But Beaumont never really comes alive as an idealist. He is always very focused on his career. It is only briefly, when he stands up to heartless authority, that we can love him. But it is not enough to form the sort of bond with a lead character that makes us care about him for the duration. Also, Dr. Karlawish may be tickled at the science of gastric juice, but really, most of us will not find that aspect all that appetizing.

Happily, while Beaumont may be the largest single element in the book, he is not the only one. There is plenty of history in this historical novel. Karlawish has presented us with a window into a time in America's past when the nation was moving westward, when reasonable people spoke of the possibility of St Louis being the natural new capital of the expanded United States, long before the Wild West became the Mid-West. It was a time when the War of 1812 was still referred to as the Second War for Independence, when cynical political leaders sought to use the trickery of treaties with native peoples to further rid them of their land and their heritage. It is these and many more looks into the time and what were then western reaches that give this book its heft. It also casts an eye toward the American character, opening with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville that celebrates the quest for knowledge in this vibrant land, but matching that with a 21st century caution from James Wilson about experimentation, the rights of subjects and conflict of interest.

What I enjoyed most about the book, and where I believe its greatest strength lies, is in how this look at the early 19th century illuminates or at the very least resonates with conflicts and discussions two hundred years later. Two Fur Company managers talk about the potential of life on other planets. That certainly feels at home at a time when science is beginning to locate so-called Goldilocks planets beyond our solar system. Antiquated views on Native Americans summon contemporary attitudes about more recent others, such as Muslims. How the Army and Fur company (substitute United Fruit in the 1950s or oil companies now) interacted still holds relevance today. It was hardly a relic of the time that a researcher's work was stolen by a higher up to enhance an undeserving reputation. And we are offered a scene in which unscrupulous lawyers shred a doctor's reputation by spinning benign facts into a false, damning accusation. Politicians and lawyers remain as they were. Also chilling and very contemporary is the comment by Beaumont’s friend, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, “That further covenants, agreements and treaties with the Indian are simply a means to an end, not to be valued and upheld. It’s war by another means.” And Beaumont was certainly not the last American to be smitten with a self-help guide.

The author makes several mentions of how the popular entertainment, the novel, was viewed at the time. It might be pure historical coloring or he might be poking a bit of fun at the ignorance of the age or even at his own efforts.

No one will mistake Open Wound for a Michael Crichton book. The pacing is reasonable, but with the primary character somewhat flat, there is less than one might desire to the characterization on which to hang one's stethoscope. There are scenes that might get one’s juices flowing. One vision of a triumphant native war party riding through town with sundry body parts of their vanquished rivals on display and used as toys was particularly chilling. But the imminent peril that propels action novels is mostly absent. What is triumphant here is Karlawish’s well-researched look into an American past, and the mirror it holds up to us today. And that makes Open Wound an eminently digestible treat.

PS - Karlawish sent me a copy for review purposes, in late November 2011

Karwalish included a nifty section, after the body of the novel, in which he explains where he retrieved his actual facts, and where some of those facts are surrendered to the demands of fiction. There are images of Beaumont and St Martin as well, and a bit of the author directly addressing his audience on his view of Beaumont.

For another perspective, you might take a look at this New York Times review.
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Reading Progress

November 30, 2011 – Started Reading
November 30, 2011 – Shelved
November 30, 2011 – Shelved as: american-history
November 30, 2011 – Shelved as: public-health
December 3, 2011 – Finished Reading
December 5, 2011 – Shelved as: science
September 21, 2014 – Shelved as: author-request

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Noran (new) - added it

Noran Miss Pumkin I thank you once more for bringing this titles to my attention. I found the original book written on Google books, and started to read it.

message 2: by Carl (new)

Carl As a medical student, I was familiar with this story, and of course benefited from the knowledge Beaumont gave us. Now that I am retired I may have time to read the full story. Thanks the review.

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