Phineas Gage

Thinking about Johnny Lang and his missing skull put me in mind of a book I recently read about a guy I'd heard of before and never knew much about, Phineas Gage (1823-1860). It's a kid's book, easy to read but very informative and not "dumbed down." It uses Phineas' lifestory to talk about brain injuries.

Phineas was an East Coast fella who worked as a blaster for the railroads. He was a crew boss. On Sept. 13, 1848, he had an accident and his tamping iron – 1.25 inches in diameter, 3 feet 8 inches long – was blown through his head. He lived.

Not only did he live, he made a complete recovery (probably the only person in human history to survive such an event) - except for a radical and unpleasant personality change.

Unable to hold a job or even maintain friendships, he started working with horses and then moved down to Chile to drive a stagecoach. It is unknown if he learned to speak Spanish. He developed a weird attachment to his tamping iron and carried it with him wherever he went. At any rate, after a

number of years he took a ship back to America, but this time went to San Francisco where his mother and sister were living. Within a few months he died during an epileptic seizure. It is not known whether this was due to the initial brain damage or the infection that set in afterward.

Several years after his death, Dr. John Martyn Harlow, the physician who saved his life, found out about Gage's death and asked the family if he could have Phineas' head since he wasn't using it anymore. They agreed, and his brother-in-law delivered the skull and tamping iron (which had been buried with him) to Dr. Harlow, who used it to proove the extent of Phineas' injuries conclusively. It has since been studied extensively and many discoveries related to mapping the brain, brain injuries and personality etc have come from this contribution.

The ironic thing here is that while his skull was causing folks to retink everything they "knew" about the brain, his body didn't stay buried. The Laurel Hill Cemetery was dug up in 1940 and all the remains (about 35,000 bodies) were transferred to a mass grave. The headstones and tombs were used as landfill. nce again, the only one present and accounted for was Phineas Gage. Maybe that tamping iron brought him luck after all.  

Phineas' lifemask, skull and tamping iron are on display at Harvard's Countway Library of Medicine where they inspire the brightest young physicians in America. 

Phineas Gage Information



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~ by ravenjake on June 23, 2008.

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