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See the railroad spike that pierced the brain of Phineas Gage

Those who know the story of Phineas Gage will appreciate the photo below of Gage holding the famous railroad spike the pieced his brain.  This is a true event that took place in 1848.  Gage was the foreman of a construction crew laying a railroad roadbed.  As he was packing powder and sand into a hole in rock, the powder detonated, sending the 13-pound tamper into his cheek and out of the top of his head. It landed 25 to 30 yards behind him.

Surprisingly, Gage never lost consciousness even  though most of the front of the left side of his brain was destroyed. He made a full physical recovery over the following 10 weeks, but his personality was irreversibly altered. Whereas he had once been an intelligent and even-tempered worker, he had overnight become irreverent, grossly profane, obstinate, capricious and ill-tempered. His friends said he was "no longer Gage."

The story is taught in medical schools to emphasize that you do not need to lose consciousness to suffer a severe brain injury and that a brain injury can cause profound behavior changes in the individual.

The photo and story of how it was discoverd can be found in a recent article that appeared in the LA Times, What happened next for famous brain injury patient.



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Matthew L. Lena (Boston, Mass.)

Researchers such as Malcolm Macmillan and I hope readers can contribute to a fuller picture of Phineas Gage by helping answer questions such as those below. Many relate not to Gage directly, but rather to people he met or places he’d been. FOR MORE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS, and how the answers might help us better understand Phineas, please visit www.deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/PgQuestn.php .

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 www.deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/PgQuestn.php are details on how you can help by following such clues. Your help or inquiries to [email protected] will be very much appreciated. (Please use email instead of posting a reply here.)

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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