Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Weekly Dose of Weird: Phineas Gage

Lest you think this should really be called Weekly Dose of Ghosts, here’s a post about a strange brain injury.  You may have heard of the victim, especially if you’re a nerdfighter.  This post is about Phineas Gage.  

When Phineas was twenty-five, in 1848, he worked as a rail foreman in Vermont.  His crew was blasting their way through rocks to lay track, when tragedy struck.  Phineas was packing explosive powder into a hole drilled into the rock, when his iron tamping rod created a spark against the rock.  This explosion drove the iron bar through his skull and straight out the top.  

Immediately after the accident Gage’s crew rushed to him, and were shocked to find that Gage was able to sit up, and speak, within moments of the bar being driven through his brain.  They took him to his lodgings in town, and called for a doctor to come see to him.  When the first doctor, Edward H. Williams, arrived, he saw the injury from his carriage.  Because of Gage’s remarkable ability to speak and move, the doctor did not believe that the bar had truly been driven through his skull.  At least, until Gage got up to vomit.  According to Dr. Williams a “teacupful of brain” fell out onto the floor from the effort required to vomit.  

Another doctor, John Martyn Harlow, took over after Dr. Williams left.  Harlow was nearly as shocked by the injuries as Dr. Williams, though he appears to have served in the military as a surgeon.  Dr. Harlow wrote that the injury was “truly terrific” but that Gage was strong throughout it, even saying that he hoped he wasn’t hurt too badly.  When he had finished examining and cleaning Gage’s head wound, Harlow remarked that Gage’s body, the bed, and his clothes were “one gore of blood.”  

For the next month or so Gage was semi-comatose.  For the length of his coma Gage’s friends thought he would die.  They went so far as to set out clothes for him to be buried in, and readied a coffin for him.  Amazingly, though, Gage survived, and in late November he made the journey home to New Hampshire after a month of walking around and recovering in Vermont.  Within a month Gage was well enough to ride horses at his parents’ home in New Hampshire.  The next year in April he went back to Vermont to visit Dr. Harlow.  The doctor noted that Gage could no longer see out of his left eye and the eyelid would not lift.  

Gage was unemployed at the time, and may have come to work for P.T. Barnum in New York, though this fact is only stated by Dr. Harlow.  In 1852, Gage moved to Chile to work as a stagecoach driver.  He stayed there for 7 years.  At about the same time that he moved to Chile, his mother and sister moved to San Francisco.  At first he had donated the iron bar that had wounded him to the Warren Museum at Harvard, but later requested its return and made it his constant companion.  

During his life after the accident Gage’s personality was said to be completely changed.  Before his accident Phineas Gage was a well-liked man, a favorite of his employers, and a hard worker.  Accounts of him later, claimed the exact opposite.  He seems to have lost his ability to consider what was appropriate or inappropriate; he became impatient and irritable.  Though he had little formal education, most had considered Gage a smart and business savvy  man, but after his accident he couldn’t keep one idea in his head long enough to pursue it.  His employers felt he was so changed that they could not offer him his job back.  Friends and family said he was so drastically changed that he was “no longer Gage.”  

However, over time it appears that Gage recovered and became much more like his old self.  Some neurologists theorize that this was partly due to the highly routinized nature of his job in Chile as a stagecoach driver.  Correspondence between his mother and Dr. Harlow also shows that Gage was good with children, as he often entertained his nieces and nephews.  

In 1859 Gage joined his family since his health was deteriorating.  He began to have epileptic seizures and convulsions, then in May of 1860 Phineas Gage died in San Francisco.  

But, it wouldn’t be a Weekly Dose of Weird if the story stopped there.  At first Phineas Gage was buried out in San Francisco.  Then, Dr. Harlow found out where he was and that he’d died.  Dr. Harlow immediately went to the family and requested Gage’s skull.  His family agreed, and Dr. Harlow came into possession of both Gage’s skull and his iron bar.  The doctor spent some time studying Gage’s skull again, then he wrote a seminal paper on Gage and the incident.  

Gage’s skull and iron bar were then both given back to the Warren Museum at Harvard.  The iron bar was then inscribed “This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr Phinehas P.­Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, [sic] 1848. He fully recovered from the injury­& deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P.­Gage Lebanon Grafton­Cy N–H Jan 6 1850.”  It’s still on display there today.  

Stay Tuned.

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