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12/15/14

Phineas Gage: Stuff Happens

The horrible accident of Phineas Gage became a case for brain scientists to study, but for me he also represents something else. In the long history of the world it has happened as people kneel in prayer. It can occur as we gaze at a seagull, feeling ocean breeze on our cheeks, or as we enjoy orange juice and the bright feathers of a cockatoo on the patio. Above all, we want our lives to be predictable, within our control, and they seem to be for a while but one day the biopsy comes back positive for pancreatic cancer or we didn't see the car that ran a red light.

It happened to Gage one sunny Vermont day. On September 13, 1848, Phineas Gage, a handsome 25 year old railroad foreman would have his life changed forever. He would go down in history as the Gage who was no longer Gage.


A responsible, well-mannered, and hard-working young man, he and his crew were laying railroad track near Cavendish, Vermont. Routine was that the crew bored a hole in rock, whereupon Gage poured in blasting powder, adding a fuse and sand, then tamped the charge into the hole. A serious foreman, he had his own tamping iron custom-made for the job. As you can see by the daguerreotype, the iron was big, 1 and 1/4 inches thick, 3 foot 7 inches long and 13 and 1/2 pounds. He was very careful and skilled in this job, tamping the sand with his iron, then setting off the explosive after he and his crew had gained distance from the charge.

One day as he laid blasting powder and a fuse in the ground a crew member said something. Turning his head to the crewman, forgetting to tamp the sand, Gage struck the charge with his iron. The explosion sent the iron up into his left skull and out the top right of his head, landing 25 to 30 yards away.

He was knocked off his feet but remained conscious. The crew put him and the iron in a cart and hurried him to town where Doctor John Harlow treated him. Gage talked calmly as Harlow peered into the top of his skull with its exit wound over an inch and a quarter wide. There was air where brain had been. Doctor Harlow looked into the cavity to see the brain pulsating. The left eye was rendered blind by the rod.

Nobody was confident he would survive as he was extremely ill for several weeks, but eventually he did recover. What nobody could foresee was that the iron had removed the part of Gage that made him Gage.

After Phineas healed he returned to his old job, but was let go. He had changed. He was no longer responsible. He was described as "a child in his intellectual capacity" for self-restraint and future-planning, but with "the animal passions of a strong man." He swore lustily in front of the gentle sex and ladies were warned to avoid him.

Temperamental, emotional, unable to hold a job, Gage and his tamping rod went on exhibit at P.T. Barnum's American Museum in New York City. He later worked in a livery stable in Hanover, New Hampshire.

The brain is amazingly plastic, and evidence suggests that Gage eventually learned to keep a job and behave among others. Evidence comes from reports that have him for some years in Chile as a long-distance stagecoach driver on the Valparaiso–Santiago route. He was able to carry out his duties this long under regular scrutiny of both passengers and employers.

Around 1859, his health began to fail and he left Chile for San Francisco, where his mother and sister had moved from New Hampshire. (The sister married D.D. Shattuck, a prominent man in the area. Shattuck, or one of his kin, has a Berkeley avenue and several Bay Area landmarks bearing his name.)

For the next few months Gage did farm work in Santa Clara.

In February 1860, Gage suffered the first of convulsions that dangerously intensified, and he died on May 21, age 37. He had survived almost twelve years beyond his accident. He was buried in San Francisco's Lone Mountain Cemetery but was moved to Cypress Lawn in Colma, California.

His remains are headless. The skull was removed for study by scientists.There is irony here. Gage underwent still another transformation, again one he could not have predicted.

Video 2 of this link reconstructs the iron ripping through Gage skull

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