Michigan and the Great Lakes

Open Wound

The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont
Jason Karlawish
A fictionalized case of medical ethics in Northern Michigan


A shotgun misfires inside the American Fur Company store in Northern Michigan, and Alexis St. Martin's death appears imminent. It's 1822, and, as the leaders of Mackinac Island examine St. Martin's shot-riddled torso, they decide not to incur a single expense on behalf of the indentured fur trapper. They even go so far as to dismiss the attention of U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon William Beaumont, the frontier fort's only doctor.

Beaumont ignores the orders and saves the young man's life. What neither the doctor nor his patient understands—yet—is that even as Beaumont's care of St. Martin continues for decades, the motives and merits of his attention are far from clear. In fact, for what he does to his patient, Beaumont will eventually stand trial and be judged.

Rooted deeply in historic fact, Open Wound artfully fictionalizes the complex, lifelong relationship between Beaumont and his illiterate French Canadian patient. The young trapper's injury never completely heals, leaving a hole into his stomach that the curious doctor uses as a window to understand the mysteries of digestion. Eager to rise up from his humble origins and self-conscious that his medical training occurred as an apprentice to a rural physician rather than at an elite university, Beaumont seizes the opportunity to experiment upon his patient's stomach in order to write a book that he hopes will establish his legitimacy and secure his prosperity. As Jason Karlawish portrays him, Beaumont, always growing hungrier for more wealth and more prestige, personifies the best and worst aspects of American ambition and power.

"[Karlawish] is well attuned to the overtones of his compelling story. . .His Beaumont is a true tragic hero."
New York Times

Jason Karlawish is Professor of Medicine, Medical Ethics, and Health Policy and Senior Fellow of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Visit his Web site at www.jasonkarlawish.com.

Praise / Awards

  • "This is a remarkable story, compellingly written, of how one man's ambition brings him both the fame he coveted and crushing failure. The propriety of a physician treating his patient as a living laboratory and as an avenue to personal glory is set down for the reader to judge. Beaumont was a man both desperate and delusionary, yet one who advanced medical science albeit with questionable methods. A provocative read from cover to cover."
    —Don Faber, author of The Toledo War

  • "Open Wound is a fascinating novel about scientific ambition on the American frontier.  Read this fine book for its meticulous reconstruction of 19th century life, and for its evocative portrait of a medical researcher whose hunger for success leads him down an ethically dubious path."
    —Karl Iagnemma, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • "The relationship between doctor and patient is hard enough to parse when both are in the same room. …And of the gallons of ink spilled over the centuries in attempts at clarification, few efforts in recent memory lay out the frustrations and confusions and crystalline moments of grace better than Dr. Jason Karlawish's marvelous new book Open Wound."
    —Abigail Zuger, M.D., New York Times

  • "In this historical novel, [Beaumont and St. Martin] become entwined in each other's lives medically, financially and even legally. Karlawish sketches their fraught relationship in the ensuing decades artfully, with clear relevance to the ethical questions of modern medicine."
    —Kristen Gerencher, Wall Street Journal Marketwatch

  • "I recommend this well-written and fascinating book to anyone interested in early medicine."
    —Susan Zabolotny, The Historical Novels Review

  • "...an excellent work of fiction with the power to illuminate difficult ethical issues."
    —Noah Raizman, The Lancet

  • "...this novel is great food for thought about the ongoing issues of informed consent and the hazards of financial incentives in the field of medical research."
    —Natasha Bagdasarian, MD, MPH, JAMA

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Q&A with Jason Karlawish | PDF | 9/30/2011

Watch: Vodcast | 10/28/11
Listen: NYT's Science Times Podcast (beginning at 9:34) | 11/29/11

Listen: Book Reading | 10/5/11

Listen: Book Reading | 10/5/11

Media Kit

  • Author Photo .jpg. Author photo by Faye Bernoulli Silag.
  • Photo 1 .jpg. Portrait of Alexis St. Martin, aged 67. Reproduced by permission of Wellcome Library, London from J.S. Myer, Life and letters of Dr. William Beaumont (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1912), 282.
  • Photo 2 .jpg. Portrait of Alexis St. Martin, aged 81. Reproduced by permission of Wellcome Library, London from J.S. Myer, Life and letters of Dr. William Beaumont (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1912), 298.
  • Photo 3 .jpg. Portrait of William Beaumont by Chester Harding. Courtesy of the Becker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine. 
  • Photo 4 .jpg. House where Alexis St Martin was wounded. Reproduced by permission of Wellcome Library, London from J.S. Myer, Life and letters of Dr. William Beaumont (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1912), 107.
  • Author Biography .doc
  • Hi-Res Cover .jpg
  • Press Release .doc

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 284pp.
  • 4 B&W Illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2013
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-03548-9

Add to Cart
  • $17.95 U.S.