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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Phineas Gage: A New Image

Benedict Carey writes:

The medical literature is punctuated with gruesome, anonymous case studies but one of the most ghastly images of all comes with name: Phineas Gage, a Vermont railroad worker who, in 1848, was skewered through his brain by an iron bar the size of large fireplace poker in an explosion. Gage survived, became an object of medical fascination, and images of his impaled skull (preserved at Harvard University) later landed in textbooks to illustrate the function of the frontal lobes. With his frontals mangled, the once-reliable Mr. Gage became a lout and wastrel. Or so the textbook version goes.

Now, a Maryland couple has come forward with what experts believe to be a photograph of Mr. Gage, post-accident, and it is a striking reminder that there was a man behind the medical case. The iron bar did not lodge in Mr. Gage’s skull – it passed through – and the person staring out of the photograph looks far from seriously disabled. He looks like the actor Christopher Reeve in his prime, minus an eye. In an article accompanying the image in the Journal of the History of Neuroscience, Malcolm Macmillan, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne, describes the process and raises the question, Who was Phineas Gage after the accident? No one really knows, as Dr. Macmillan has pointed out in a series of papers. Mr. Gage was changed, all right, but he lived another 11 years, held several jobs, and was not so easy to fit into the “wastrel” mold given him by textbooks after his death.

link: The Curious Case of Phineas Gage, Refocused - TierneyLab Blog -


Matthew L Lena (Boston) said...

Researchers such as Malcolm Macmillan and I hope readers can contribute to a fuller picture of Phineas Gage by helping with topics such as those listed below. Many are not on Gage directly, but rather people or places related to him. FOR MORE INFORMATION including how these relate to Phineas, please visit .

Information might be in letters and diaries; medical and business records; town, police and court files; local newspapers; or in the archives of churches, hospitals and literary, professional, historical and genealogical societies. We especially hope organizations will search their one-of-a-kind materials not published in book form.

IN CHILE (1852-60): We want to know about Drs. William and Henry Trevitt, Masonic lodges, Methodist churches, and English-language newspapers, schools and businesses. Do you know anyone who can help with such things?

IN NEW ENGLAND (1848-54): Can you find newspaper or diary accounts of Phineas’ accident, of his travels exhibiting himself and his “iron,” or of his reported preaching at Methodist revivals in Sterling, Mass.? In Concord, NH records of the Abbot-Downing coachworks could identify “three enterprising New Englanders” who may have set up the coach line for which Phineas drove in Chile; in Hanover you might discover Phineas’ duties at Currier’s Inn, or a Dartmouth professor who met him; and somewhere in Wilton may be the papers of Henry Trevitt.

IN CALIFORNIA (1860- ): Where is the missing undertaker’s ledger showing where Gage died? What can you discover about Dr. William Jackson Wentworth (Alameda Co.) or the papers of Joseph Stalder (d.1931)? Are you descended from Phineas’s nieces/nephew Hannah, Delia, Mary, Alice, or Frank B.Shattuck? Can we learn more about Frank at the School for the Deaf?

IN OHIO (1860- ): Can you find anything about Henry Trevitt’s time at Starling Medical College in Columbus, Prof. J.W. Hamilton, or William Trevitt’s papers?

ANYWHERE: If you are related to the Cowdrey, Davis, Ames, or Kimball families, are you also related to Phineas’ doctor, John Martyn Harlow? Do you know of ship passenger lists (Boston, New York, Chile, Panama, S.F.) that might show Gage family movements? Do you have Gold Rush ancestors who stopped in Valparaiso, Chile? And of course, letters mentioning Gage could have gone anywhere.

There are more clues in Stillwater and Northfield, MN; Santa Clara, San Rafael, and S.F., CA; Cavendish, Castleton, Woodstock, and Burlington, VT; Lebanon and Enfield, NH; Albany, NY, Buda, IL, the National Library of Medicine, and other places. At are details on how you can help by following such clues. Your help or inquiries to will be very much appreciated.

We would be pleased to assist teachers (in New England, S.F., even Chile?) in creating a class project involving students’ search for family papers or local lore about Gage.

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