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  • Writer's pictureBob Wilson

Phineas Gage—He Needed This Job like a Hole in the Head Cavendish

Bolted to a rock on Pleasant Street is a plaque commemorating “The Gage Accident.” It was placed there in 1998, 150 years after a story that goes like this:

On September 13, 1848, Phineas P. Gage, a twenty-five-year-old Rutland & Burlington Railroad construction foreman, was setting dynamite charges to remove rock ledges impeding the railroad’s expansion across Vermont. He first drilled a narrow hole in the rock and filled it halfway with blasting powder. Next came a fuse, and finally the powder was covered with protective sand and tamped down. Gage customarily signaled one of his men to pour in the sand before he tamped it down, with a rod designed for him by a local blacksmith. On this afternoon, however, he gestured for his partner to put in the sand and then was distracted by another worker. When he looked back and rammed his thirteen-pound tamping rod into the hole, he failed to see that his partner had not yet added the sand. His rod struck rock, created a spark, and whammo!

A tremendous blast propelled the 3-foot, 7-inch rod through Gage’s left cheekbone, exiting the top of his skull at high speed, and landing, covered with blood and brains, more than 100 feet behind him. When his fellow workers reached the stunned Gage, they were amazed to see that he was not only alive but conscious. They carried him to an ox-drawn cart, which took him the three-quarters of a mile back to Cavendish. He was erect and got up the steps to the Adams Hotel with just a little assistance. According to neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, when the doctor arrived at Adams Hotel, Gage was seated on the front porch and greeted him by saying, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.”

He was under the doctor’s care for ten weeks and then discharged to his home in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Within two months he had completely recovered: He could walk, speak, and was pain free.

But it was soon clear that the Phineas Gage who went back to work was a completely different man. The hardworking, responsible, and popular Phineas was now, as his doctor wrote, “. . . fitful, irreverent, indulging in the grossest profanity . . . pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating. . . .[H]is mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’”

Phineas was fired from his job in 1850 and spent about a year as a sideshow attraction at P. T. Barnum’s New York museum, displaying his scars—and the tamping iron that caused them—to anyone willing to pay for the privilege. His health began to fail in 1859, and he moved to San Francisco to live with his mother. In 1860 he began to have epileptic seizures and died a few months later at the age of forty-two, buried with the rod that damaged him.

In 1990 an autopsy on Gage’s exhumed body by Drs. Antonio and Hanna Damasio confirmed that the ruinous damage to the frontal lobes by the rod is what caused Gage’s antisocial behavior, and that the seizures leading to his death were accident-related as well. Both his skull and the rod are part of a permanent exhibition at Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

In 1998, at the 150th commemoration of the tragic explosion, Phineas’s rod was brought by armed guard from Harvard to Cavendish for the ceremony.

YouTube Video about Phineas Gage:

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