Jason Karlawish discusses the history behind ‘Open Wound’ on NPR

by Shaun Manning on August 13, 2012

Jason Karlawish, whose 2011 novel Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont tells a fictionalized story of Dr. Beaumont’s experiments upon gutshot fur trapper Alexis St. Martin on Mackinac Island in 1822, spoke with Michigan Writers On Air’s Aaron Stander for Interlochen Public Radio. Though the island is now famous for its Victorian aesthetic and delicious fudge, Karlawish said that in Beaumont’s day things were quite different. “Imagine that fort dominating the place, and the island a cosmopolis of trade. … Essentially, the Army’s job at that time was to keep the island functioning for the American Fur Company,” he said.

Karlawish, a physician by trade, noted that medicine, too, was far from what we could expect from modern doctors. Beaumont’s notebooks, he said, may have included instructions such as, “When fever strikes, apply the lancet, mercurials, and the cup.” “What he was basically saying was, bleed them, purge them (make them vomit), and apply a hot cup that blisters the skin. It was a brutal practice, really, that relied a lot on a theory of disease that you basically over or under-stimulated.” Nevertheless, the “basics of wound care” were similar to those of today, and Beaumont treated St. Martin quite competently at first, tending to the wound in the trapper’s stomach. When that wound healed, though, the stomach had fused to the abdominal wall, leaving an external opening to St. Martin’s digestive system. Soon, Beaumont “began to see him not as a patient but as an object of discovery,” Karlawish said.

“He was truly doing amateur science, which was inappropriate.”

For the full fascinating discussion, including the intricacies of the healthcare system in the early 19th century, St. Martin’s attempts to escape his role, and why the two men’s dynamic was like that of lovers, listen to the whole interview at Interlochen Public Radio, an NPR affiliate. Open Wound is available now in paperback, Kindle, and Adobe digital editions.

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