A True History

Phineas Gage and the American Crowbar Case

So after telling a friend all about the Elmer McCurdy story while I was writing that blog post about him she reminded me about the story of Phineas Gage, and since my favorite parts of History are the stories that sound too crazy to be true, I of course had to go back and do some more research about this case.

If you’ve ever taken a Psychology class or any class that has to deal with studying the brain in any sense of the word, you’ve probably heard about Phineas Gage. Maybe you’ve even just heard about him because the story was pretty famous! In short, Mr. Gage is that guy who had a large iron rod go completely through his head, specifically his frontal lobe, which affected his personality and behavior for the rest of his life. However, there are so many different published accounts of Mr. Gage’s personality change and life after the iron rod that exacerbate his changes and contradict each other so some of the facts are a little murky.

Before that, Gage grew up in New Hampshire and was a healthy, strong, and active man in the mid 19th century. According to the town doctor, John Martyn Harlow, he had a very well developed immune system and was rarely sick from the day he was born up to his injury.

Gage is said to have likely worked with explosives all his life, so he was comfortable working with them and was well liked by employers. So, he was far from a newbie and he knew what he was doing around explosives. That was why the accident on the railway track while preparing the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was so alarming.

On September 13, 1848 at around 4:30 in the afternoon, Gage momentarily turned around to face the men working behind him. Any other time it would have meant nothing, we all get distracted from time to time, but at that moment he inadvertently brought his head into a perfect alignment with a blast hole. Apparently, he opened his mouth to say something at the exact same moment that a tamping iron sparked against a rock so the powder exploded and sent that iron straight through the left side of Gage’s face. Gage was thrown from where he was standing and convulsed for several moments, but within minutes he was walking and talking without any assistance and had no problems getting back to town that afternoon. Other than the large iron that was protruding through his head, Gage seemed totally fine.

Thus began the start of the “American Crowbar Case.”

Phineas Gage saw a physician almost immediately who tended to his physical wounds and for a week and a half he was conscious and had no speech problems whatsoever, but 10 days after his accident he was barely conscious. Considering the trauma he had recently gone through, doctors anticipated his demise, but that period of time where doctors feared the worst was short-lived and within a few months he was almost fully recovered and had regained his physical strength enough to return to work.

Strangely enough, despite everything, he had no motor impairments, speech impairments, or memory issues. The only documented change for Mr. Gage after the accident were some personality changes by his colleagues who claimed that the changes were so severe he was “no longer Gage.”

Here’s the thing though, like I said at the beginning, there are so many conflicting accounts about Phineas Gage and how he changed that nobody is quite sure if his personality changed all that much. It’s hard to tell when his personality before the accident wasn’t well documented and people are always prone to exaggeration, especially in a case like this! One article that I read stated that he mistreated his wife and children, but nothing else I read ever said that he was married to begin with!

So, the full extent of Mr. Gage’s true story will remain a mystery, but I highly recommend reading more about him! Here are some articles and books on the subject that I found that really caught my attention:

Why Brain Scientists are Still Obsessed with the Curious Case of Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage: Unravelling the Myth

Lessons of the Brain: The Phineas Gage Story

An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage

The Gruesome Story of Phineas Gage

And if you’re still really interested in Phineas Gage’s case, you can go to the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, MA and view his skull as well as the iron rod that went through it as well as other medical oddities if that’s what interests you!