Phineas Gage (His History)

Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who survived a freak accident. When a metal rod blew through his frontal lobe, his personality drastically changed.

It was through his accident and experience that scientists uncovered the role of the frontal lobe in the human brain. 

In this blog article, we will discuss the history and life of Phineas Gage, what happened in his accident, and how his accident led scientists to discover the role of the frontal lobe in the brain. 

Who is Phineas Gage? 

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Phineas Gage was an American railroad constructor foreman in Cavendish, Vermont and was born in July 1823. He died in May 1860 in California.

He is remembered for his improbable survival after a 42 inch tamping iron rod weighing 13.25 pounds was driven straight through his head.

Gage is referred to as the most famous patient in the history of neuroscience because his case was the first to suggest a link between personality change and brain trauma.

After his accident, he suffered from traumatic brain wound that destroyed much of the left frontal lobe of his brain. His friends described him as “no longer Gage”.

His skull with a tamping iron rod and a mask of his face are housed in the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard Medical School.

He remains one of the world’s most strange cases in the medical field because of his horrifying accident. He died at the age of 36. 

How did Phineas Gage grow up and what was his work experience like? 

People do not know much about the early life of Phineas Gage because at that time that he lived, he was not a famous and important person.

What we do know is that he had four siblings, and he enjoyed entertaining his little nephews. He loved children and animals.

His parents took care of him after the accident and also years later when he got sick upon his return from Valparaiso where he worked as a stagecoach driver.

Nothing much known about his education, but it is known that he grew up on a farm and he was literate.

It is believed that Phineas Gage began working with explosives and heavy machinery while living on the farm or in the mines and quarries where he lived.

After some time, he was later hired to work on the construction of railways. He participated in the construction of the Hudson River Railroad and was hired by the contractors that handled the Rutland and Burlington Railroad projects.

At the time of his accident, he was already a bustling foreman and was considered highly efficient by his employers.

He was extremely ambitious and paid a lot of attention to detail. He even had a tamping iron made especially to set explosive charges.

Ironically, it was that bar that changed his life forever.

What is the famous accident that happened to Phineas Gage? 

On September 13th, 1848, when Phineas Gage was 25 years old, he was using his iron tamping road to pack the dangerous explosive powder into a hole at work.

Suddenly the powder exploded and sent the iron rod upward. The iron rod penetrated his left cheek and tore through his brain.

Fortunately, he not only survived the initial wound but was also able to talk. Dr. Edward H. Williams was the person to care for Gage after the accident.

As Dr. Williams was not a military doctor, he was not accustomed to these types of wounds but nonetheless he cleaned the coagulated blood.

Dr. Williams recorded every unbelievable aspect of his wound. Below is the bar that was shot through Gage’s head.

“Here is business enough for you,” Gage told Dr. Williams after the premature detonation of explosive powder, turning the tamping iron rod into a missile.

The first thing that Dr. Williams noticed was the wound on Gage’s head. During examination, Gage was explaining how he got injured.

Dr. Williams did not believe his statement at that time; he thought he was lying. Gage insisted that a heavy iron bar shot through his head.

He stood up and suddenly vomited, putting pressure on his wound. Below is a photo of Gage’s skull with an iron rod through it.

Now Gage’s case has been sent to another doctor, named Dr. John Martyn Harlow.

Harlow’s observation of the wound and his description of Gage’s accident provides us with a lot of information about his case.

In a published letter, Dr. Harlow wrote that Gage was still conscious during and after his accident because he was able to recall the names of all workers who worked with him.

Though blinded in his left eye, he remained aware enough to retell the details to his doctors.

What is the frontal lobe of the brain and how did Phineas Gage’s accident uncover its function? 

In Gage’s accident, his frontal lobe was extremely damaged which accounts for the main reason his personality changed.

The frontal lobe acts as a control panel for the body.

The frontal lobe is the main and largest part of brain that controls following skills: 

–       Emotional expression

–       Problem solving

–       Ability to communicate

–       Memory management

–       Sexual behavior

–       Languages

–       Judgement

–       Decision power

Gage’s recovery took longer than expected because his wound got infected and needed to be cleaned over and over again.

After developing an infection in his body, he spent almost two weeks in a semi – comatose state from September 23rd to October 3rd, 1848.

Luckily, Gage’s doctor knew how to treat a brain abscess.

On October 7th, Gage got up from his bed and took his first steps. After a few days he showed more improvement in his body functionalities.

His doctor noted that Gage knew many facts, such as how many days he spent in hospital, what happened to him on the day of the accident, but he had difficulty in estimating sizes and values of money.

Gage suffered no speech impairments as a result of his brain wound, and his memory was mostly intact.

Eventually, he became restless and insisted on going outside without a jacket and with improper shoes. He developed a fever which delayed his recovery process.

Within a month he was better, and was able to venture out again.

At the beginning stages of treating his wound, his doctors anticipated death but he surprised everyone and recovered very quickly.

He regained his physical strength and was able to work again.

His work colleagues said that his personality changed after his accident, describing him as a restless and disrespectful person. 

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What is the medical importance of Phineas Gage’s accident? 

After suffering from this accident, Gage spurred discussion within the fields of psychology and neurology about the roles of different functionalities of the human brain in determining personalities (Raymond Cattell and his personality theory).

Gage became the living subject of exhibition because of his accident and partial recovery. 

His case was studied by many famous physicians over the years.

In 1994, researchers reconstructed the wound to determine how extended the damage had been.

Medical reports and research showed that this iron rod destroyed 4% of the cerebral cortex and 11% of white matter (present in the frontal lobe).

As mentioned, his family and friends stated that Gage went through some personality changes which fueled the theories concerning the localization of brain functions.

How did Phineas Gage die? 

After his accident, he took a job in Chile in 1852, working as a driver of a stagecoach.

Seven years later, he moved to California to live with his mother and sister.

He lived 12 years following his accident, and he died of epileptic seizures. He is buried in Memorial Park, Colma, California, in the United States.  

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Phineas Gage: 

What did Phineas Gage teach us?

Gage’s story was the first and most important case that reveals faculties which are associated with different regions of the brain.

Despite these stories, Gage taught us that complex functions like social cognition and decision-making are surely dependent on frontal lobes.

Why do we study Phineas Gage?

·      His unfortunate situation contributed a lot of important data for neuroscience.

·   To this day, doctors study life and continue to learn about how he was able to survive after the accident.

·      We were able to learn vital information about character and personality which was affected after his brain damage. 

How did Phineas Gage recover?

Gage’s traumatic brain wound destroyed much of his frontal lobe.

He miraculously survived, but he was so different as a result that his friends and family described him as a different man.

What part of the brain controls personality?

The frontal lobe controls the personality. It is located in the front of the brain. 

Can head trauma change your personality?

Although Gage’s situation is an extreme example, it is well-established now that damage to these parts of the brain can result in personality changes.

Other possible outcomes can include depression, anxiety and social isolation, and struggles to adjust to post-wound life. 

What part of the brain controls memory?

The amygdala, the hippocampus, the cerebellum, and the prefrontal cortex are the main parts of the brain associated with memory.

Fear and fear memories are associated with the amygdala, and the hippocampus is involved with declarative and episodic memory, and recognition memory.

Did Phineas Gage feel any pain during his accident?

Gage said he felt no pain from the wound but he did admit that he couldn’t describe it but it felt very weird. 

How did Phineas Gage die?

He died of an epileptic seizure at age 36. 

In this blog article, we discussed the history of Phineas Gage’s life and how his accident shaped modern neuroscience and psychology. 

Interested in reading more? Check out these books on Phineas Gage and his accident. 

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science

This extraordinary book tells the true story of one of the most remarkable accidents in human history.

Readers will not only be fascinated by all the gruesome details, but will also learn riveting information about how Phineas helped change the history of brain science.

An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage

Author Malcolm Macmillan, a leading authority on Gage, covers all aspects of this fascinating story.

He describes Gage’s family and personal background, the context of his work and the accident, and Gage’s subsequent history.

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery

With the lucid, masterful explanations and razor-sharp wit Sam Kean’s fans have come to expect, Kean explores the brain’s secret passageways and recounts the forgotten tales of the ordinary people whose struggles, resilience, and deep humanity made neuroscience possible.

If you want to learn more about the history of the human brain while being entertained and on the edge of your seat, this book is for you!

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Phineas Gage’s Astonishing Brain wound, Accessed April 20, 2020

Phineas Gage, accessed April 20, 2020 

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