Phineas Gage: A Story of Survival

Phineas Gage in an undated photo after suffering his brain injury. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Phineas Gage in an undated photo after suffering his brain injury. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1848, Phineas Gage survived an accident in which an iron rod was driven through his head.

Here are some things you may not have known about him.

Gage was a railroad construction foreman, who was working as part of a blasting crew near Cavendish, Vermont.

The crew’s job consisted of drilling into rock, filling the hole with blasting powder, a fuse and sand, and then tamping down the contents of the hole with an iron rod.

As Gage was tamping down a blasting point, the iron sparked against a rock and the powder exploded, rocketing the 13 1/4 pound piece of iron through Gage’s skull.

It entered through his left cheek and passed behind his eye before blasting through the left side of his brain.

The tamping iron was found 80 feet away with its point in the ground like a javelin.

Gage suffered immediate convulsions, but was able to speak within a few minutes. He walked to an oxcart and was taken back to his boarding house.

He was waiting in a chair outside the hotel when a doctor arrived. He supposedly said, “Doctor, here is enough business for you.”

His only real disability appeared to be exhaustion from the loss of blood.

Doctors cleaned up the wound and left it open to drain.

The next day, his condition deteriorated and he became delirious. However, he recovered remarkably over the next week. This was followed by another setback as an infection of the wound left him comatose.

His doctor, John Harlow, had witnessed an unsuccessful surgery on a head injury while in medical school. He learned that keeping the wound drained was the key. Harlow removed the infection and Gage was able to walk less than a month later.

Less than six months after his injury, Gage was able to help around his parents’ farm.

Gage made money by making public appearances for a short time, although he found there wasn’t much of an audience.

In 1852, he moved to Chile to become a long-distance stagecoach driver, where he remained for almost seven years until his health began failing.

He developed seizures in 1860 and was soon unable to work. He died on May 21, 1860 of an epileptic seizure.

Rumors that Gage suffered a massive personality change as a result of the accident appear to be either exaggerated or untrue.

His behavior flowing the accident was described in second-hand accounts as being “gross, profane, coarse, and vulgar to such a degree that his society was intolerable to decent people.”

However, first-hand accounts say nothing about this. They remark on how remarkable his recovery was, as noted by his ability to hold his stagecoach job in Chile for almost seven years.

The job may have also played a major part in his recovery. The structured environment of working on a stagecoach resembles rehabilitation regimens used today for people who suffer brain injuries.

Gage’s injury also paved the way for complex brain surgery. His injury and recovery showed that it was possible for procedures, such as tumor removal, to be performed without killing the patient.

Our question: What pseudoscience is focused on the measurements of the skull?


Today is International Chocolate Day, Fortune Cookie Day and National Peanut Day.

It’s the birthday of candy maker Milton Hershey, who was born in 1857; writer Roald Dahl, who was born in 1916; and musician Fiona Apple, who turns 39.

Because our topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1995, the top song in the U.S. was “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio.

The No. 1 movie was “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” while the novel “From Potter’s Field” by Patricia Cornwell topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Weekly question

What two television shows that are currently on the air are among the Top 10 longest running American scripted primetime series?



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