Flying home from a speaking engagement in Michigan last month left me with a dilemma – I hadn’t brought enough reading material. But I was lucky enough to find just the thing in an antique shop on Mackinac Island before I left, a hardback edition of Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1936), a book I’d read as a teenager.

The novel begins to tell the boy’s-own story of the real-life adventurer Major Robert Rogers (1731-1795) through the eyes of a new recruit to Rogers’ Rangers, the pioneering soldiers of the Anglo-French colonial wars of 1750s America. It seemed apt that the book followed the trajectory of my Detroit-London journey. Rogers took the town from the French in 1760 and then lived in the capital, where much of the second part of the novel is set. This is the darker and more interesting section of the book as the narrator, Langden Towne and the increasingly alcoholic Rogers move through the capital city of William Hogarth and Benjamin Franklin, with Rogers aiming to solicit Royal assent for an expedition to find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean.

The story moves around the periphery of the Royal Society at this point. Towne’s desire to be an artist is inspired by the work of Mark Catesby, while Rogers dreams of a North-West Passage expedition which would be resupplied on the Pacific coast by James Cook. I wondered if I could find traces of the real Rogers in the Society’s archives or one of his published descriptions of America. There might be some mention of him in the papers of the army physician Charles Blagden (1748-1820) who reported to Lord Amherst just as Rogers did.

No luck. Happily, my host in Michigan, Dr Paul Fecko, had told me the story of another Mackinac resident William Beaumont (1785-1853) who, like Blagden, was a military medic. In 1822 Beaumont treated a fur trader, Alexis St Martin, for a stomach wound (the result of an Elmer Fudd-style duck-hunting mishap) and realized that once he had healed, St Martin’s residual fistula offered a window into the stomach. There followed a series of experiments in which Beaumont inserted foodstuffs tied with silk directly into St Martin’s innards before withdrawing them; and drawing off the fluid into vials in which he could suspend beef and chicken. In each case, Beaumont was able to observe the digestive effects of gastric fluids at first hand.

Sure enough, Beaumont’s Experiments and observations on the gastric juice and the physiology of digestion (Boston, 1834) was on the Royal Society’s library shelves when I looked for it. In his way, William Beaumont was as much of a pioneer as Robert Rogers. Just don’t give Heston Blumenthal his meat recipes.

The 2-day conference The Royal Society and the British Atlantic World, exploring 17th and 18th century scientific relations in colonial America will be held 30- September-1 October 2010 at 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London. For more information see  http://royalsociety.org/Atlantic-World-conference/

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