A head of his time: Phineas Gage's horrific accident

Ransom Riggs

It may be the most storied head injury in U.S. history -- that the victim survived, at least -- and frankly, I can't believe we haven't blogged about it yet. In 1849, Phineas Gage was a railroad construction foreman working in Cavendish, Vermont, when a poorly-packed lump of explosive powder sent a four-foot-long, 1.25-inches-wide metal rod into his skull, through his brain and out the other side, where it landed almost 30 yards behind him. As grotesque as the accident was, there would've been nothing remarkable about it had Gage not been semi-ambulatory and able to speak just a few minutes later. Even more amazing, he made a seemingly complete recovery, and in just a few months, was back to work. But according to his co-workers, something about Gage had changed.

A few months after his accident, Gage's doctor wrote this:

From Passage of an Iron Rod through the Head Gage was fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'

Thus, Gage the survivor -- after working for P.T. Barnum as an attraction for several years -- became of utmost interest to psychologists (and eventually, cognitive neuropsychologists). Of course, Gage's isn't the only example of amazing head trauma lived through, just the most famous. Check out this gnarly nail-gun accident:

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