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Passing Gas: a Modern Scientific History


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Levitt published thirty-four papers on flatus. He identified the three sulfur gases responsible for flatus odor. He showed that it is mainly trapped methane gas, not dietary fiber or fat, that makes the floater float. Most memorably, to this mind anyway, he invented the flatus-trapping Mylar “pantaloon.”

“Even now,” he says of his flatus work, “it overshadows everything else I do.” Levitt and I are sitting in a conference room upstairs from his lab at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. Levitt has a goofy, lopsided smile and a pale complexion. I couldn’t recall, while writing this, whether his hair was gray, so I typed his identifiers into Google Images. A photograph of a can of baked beans came up.

For the record, here are some of Michael Levitt’s other contributions to medicine: He invented the breath hydrogen test, which originated not as a flatulence assessment technique but to diagnose malabsorption of carbohydrates in the small intestine. He debunked a diet fad for foods made with “nonabsorbable” carbohydrates. He showed that the wriggling movements of the villi are the key to intestinal stirring and to healthy absorption of nutrients. “I wrote the book on intestinal stirring.”

A scientist and a gentleman. 

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