Penn's Jason Karlawish: Physician and Novel Writer

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Media Contact:Jeanne Leong | | 215-573-8151December 2, 2011


Jason Karlawish is a physician, professor and researcher, and now he is also a novelist.

His recently released book, Open Wound: The Tragic Obsession of Dr. William Beaumont, is based on the true story of the 19th-century U.S. Army doctor who discovered that human food digestion is mainly the chemical process of stomach acid breaking down food.

In the book, Karlawish, of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine faculty, creates a fictionalized version of the decades-long complex, mutually dependent relationship between Beaumont and his patient, and later, research subject, Alexis St. Martin.

The two men met when Beaumont treated St. Martin for a gunshot to his stomach. St. Martin survived despite a hole in his stomach, which never healed.

When St. Martin couldn’t return to work because of his injuries, Beaumont hired him as a handyman. Beaumont soon realized that he could use St. Martin to study how food is digested. Beaumont would insert a piece of food tied to a string into St. Martin’s stomach, and then remove the food every few hours observe the digestion process.

When Karlawish first heard Beaumont’s story many years ago, he thought it would make a good novel, but he just filed the idea away.

“Several years later, I rekindled that idea, and thought I’d really like to get back to fiction again as a narrative, as a means to think about and talk about and reflect on issues on bioethics.”

As a researcher and physician, Karlawish could relate to the ethical issues faced by the Beaumont character in his novel with St. Martin.

“The story of William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin is deeply infused with questions of what’s the right thing to do,” Karlawish said. “And why do people do what they do? Or, don’t do what they should do and how emotion and passion together with social and political pressures slowly corrupt the scientist’s character and ethics, a corruption that drives Dr. Beaumont to increasingly desperate acts.”

For Karlawish, writing the novel was is an extension of his work as a physician.  It’s all enjoyable.

“My work is a lot of fun, as opposed to my fun being a lot of work. The book is very much a part of my scholarship,” he says. “My research is in bioethics, combining health-services research, bioethics and social-science methods.  Writing is very much part of my scholarship.”

As for writing another novel in the future, Karlawish says that’s a possibility.  But, for now, he’s working on a scholarly book about how risk is transforming the medical field.