Phineas Gage was a foreman on a railroad crew working in Vermont and New Hampshire on Sept. 13, 1848 when an iron rod went through his skull. His crew was blasting through rocks laying the tracks in Cavendish, Vt.
Placing charges required drilling a hole, filling it with black powder, a fuse and sand and tamping it into place with a long iron rod similar to a crowbar. As Gage was tamping a charge into place, apparently his rod created a spark when striking the rock. This touched off an explosion.
Remarkably, the rod was blown from the hole with such force that it went directly through Gage’s head, entering his cheek and passing through the top of his head. Men found it 80 feet away.
It was an unusually smooth and slender rod, one that Gage had made to his specifications. That probably saved his life. Alert and talking a few minutes after the accident, Gage rode in a cart to the doctor in Cavendish.
Phineas Gage Understates His Case
When the doctor arrived, 30 minutes after Gage, he found the patient upright and alert. In one of the great understatements of medical history, Gage said,
Doctor, here is business enough for you.
The doctor dressed his wounds and told him to rest. John Harlow, another physician who had treated brain injuries before, took over his care.
In the days that followed, Gage’s condition worsened as Harlow treated his brain swelling and infections. At one point, the doctor had a coffin standing by and clothes ready in which to bury Phineas Gage.
Over a period of weeks, however, Phineas Gage gradually stabilized and then improved. By November, he returned to his family’s home in Lebanon, N.H. He had lost use of his left eye and had a scar on his forehead, but was otherwise healthy.
Fame, No Fortune
Over the next 12 years, Phineas Gage would become the object of scientific scrutiny, visiting medical conferences and exhibiting his wounds at medical schools. Much of the debate over his case surrounded the effects of his injury on his personality.
Doctors said the injury dramatically altered his personality by making him argumentative and profane.
John Harlow wrote that his friends found him ‘no longer Gage.’ He couldn’t stick to plans, spoke ‘the grossest profanity’ and showed ‘little deference for his fellows.’
Others said that was his personality before the accident, as well.
The railroad company that employed him wouldn’t take him back after he recovered. By 1860, Phineas Gage had relocated to the West Coast and was working as a stagecoach driver in Santa Clara, and that’s where he died.
His injury probably finally caught up with him, as he had begun having seizures. It was during one of these that he passed away.
His family later returned his skull and his tamping rod to the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard University where it remains today as the most sought-after item.
At least 35 years ago, a Baltimore couple named Jack and Beverly Wilgus acquired a 19th-century daguerreotype of a handsome young man with a closed eye and scarred forehead. He held a long metal rod, which they thought might be a harpoon.
In 2007, Beverly Wilgus posted the image on Flickr, the photo-sharing site. She named it ‘One-Eyed Man With Harpoon.’
First a whaling enthusiast emailed her to say the man didn’t hold a harpoon. Then Michael Spurlock, a Montana history buff, contacted Wilgus and said she might just have a picture of Phineas Gage. If so, it would be the only known image of him.
It shouldn’t be surprising that someone would know the story of Phineas Gage, even in the 21st century. His case was famous, the first to suggest a link between brain damage and personality change. Two-thirds of introductory psychology textbooks discuss Phineas Gage, according to Malcolm Macmillan, psychologist who wrote a book about him.
When the Wilguses took a closer look at the daguerreotype, they noticed a partial inscription on the harpoon that read, “through the head of Mr. Phi…”
So in 2009, the Wilguses visited the Warren Museum at Harvard, where they saw the full inscription:
This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phineas P. Gage.
Phineas Gage’s reputation suffered over the years. People described him as a lout, a drunk and a wastrel. But after the daguerreotype came to light, they began to reconsider. After all, the man in the picture seemed clean, confident, well dressed and sober.
Macmillan, his biographer, pointed out that Phineas Gage held jobs for 11 years after the accident, hardly something a drunk and wastrel could accomplish.
“The facts about the real Phineas may have a slight resemblance to the modern pre-accident representation,” wrote Macmillan. “But he can hardly be recognized in the post-accident picture.”
This story about Phineas Gage was updated in 2022. Image: Railroad cut in Cavendish, Vt., by By Danaxtell at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20811027.