Phineas GageIt was September 13, 1848 when 25 year-old railroad blasting foreman Phineas Gage was packing an explosive charge into a hole drilled in the granite in Cavendish, Vermont, where Gage was removing a small mountain of stone from the path of the new railroad when “something went wrong,” the understatement of the century, making today


It seems the 13 pound iron bar Gage designed to tamp down TNT charges into blasting holes was blown clean through his head, taking most of the left frontal lobe of Gage’s brain with it.

Amazingly enough, he was talking moments afterward and walking around. When the local doctor returned from a house call, he found Gage waiting on his porch, saying  “Doctor, here is business enough for you.”

Doctor Edward H. Williams took him into his office, where Mr Gage promptly vomited, and the effort “spilled another half cup of his brains onto the floor.” Treating the gaping wound in the man’s skull, Doctors Williams and John Harlow removed bone fragments, loose tissue and about another ounce or two of “protruding brains.”

Incredibly, Phineas Gage survived, and his injury inspired extensive research into the functions of the human brain, and his name is familiar to every student of brain anatomy. Gage thought he would be back at work “in a few days,” but his convalescence was “long, difficult and uneven.”

Gage became a case study in personality radically changed, and bodily functions lost and regained. After a couple of years of being a science exhibit for budding neurosurgeons, Gage resumed normal work functions, even taking a job in Chile as a stage coach driver, before returning to the USA in San Francisco, where he experienced epileptic seizures and failing health which led to his death 11 years after his accident.

Medical science being what it was in the 1850s, the best conclusions doctors of the day came up with were summed up by Harvard Medical School teacher Henry Bigelow: “The leading feature of this case is its improbability.”

Ya think, Doc?

As much as any other man of the Nineteenth Century, the railroad worker Phineas Gage was responsible for the beginnings of serious study and research of the human brain that continues to this day, and he did it the hard way.

•Suggested Activities: Not sustaining any massive brain trauma today.

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