phineas gage miracle unexplained medical science

The Short yet Eventful Life of Phineas Gage

Have you heard of fella called Phineas Gage? He’s a famous medical case, so I suppose anatomists and doctors are very familiar with the details, but the rest of us don’t often hear about him. But that changes now!

The Story of Phineas Gage

The year is 1848. Phineas is 25 years old and he belongs to a crew that clears the way for railroad tracks to be put down. His job is to blast away rock to make a clear path for the train.

Clearing rock is somewhat tricky, and requires gunpowder, sand, and a long metal pole called a tamping iron. Phineas and his crew are getting ready to begin blasting rock in a new area. As they assemble their materials, something goes wrong and causes the gunpowder to ignite early. Phineas is holding his tamping iron and the explosion literally blows it out of his hand and into his face. The tamping iron enters his face below his cheekbone. The gunpowder creates so much force, the tamping iron actually exits through the top of his head, and lands about 25 yards away.

The crew rushes to where Phineas is laying on the ground, and is stunned to find him alive and conscious, though somewhat the worse for wear. His survival of this freak accident puts him into a tiny group of super-lucky people who have managed to cheat certain death.

This isn’t the end of the story, though! Phineas sits up unaided, and calmly tells the crew the tamping iron must have passed through his skull.

“It’s nothing, guys. Settle down.”

The men urge Phineas to see a doctor, as he is visibly hemorrhaging blood. He agrees, on the condition he can sit up front instead of laying down, as if he’d been injured or something. When the group arrives in town, Phineas waves off attempts to help him and climbs down from the wagon without assistance, no doubt embarrassed he had allowed a minor accident to prevent him from finishing his shift.

Dr. John Harlow, the town physician, receives an urgent message to come help a wounded man. He arrives to find Phineas awake and waiting for him patiently. Upon examination, the doctor establishes Phineas’ memory and reason are unimpaired. The patient says he has no pain, and Dr. Harlow pronounces it a miracle.

The doctor really seems like quite a guy. He treats the man with the worst brain damage ever documented, and the patient makes a full recovery. The doctor takes no credit for Phineas’ survival and brushes off compliments, saying, “I dressed him. God healed him.” Modest fellow.

The nearly unsurvivable accident causes Phineas little physical pain and no mental anguish. His physical recovery is complete in three months which is, I believe, the standard recuperation period after having your skull impaled by a three-and-a-half foot tamping iron.

Phineas decides to move in with his parents until he regains his strength. His old friends and neighbors notice two changes in him:

  1. He acts like a completely different person. The damaged area of Phineas’ brain is linked to personality and post-accident, someone new and unfamiliar seems to have settled into his body.
  2. He carries the tamping iron that nearly killed him everywhere. There are two known photographs of him after the explosion, and both of them feature the tamping iron.

Seven months after his accident, Phineas finally decides to stop being a little girl and get back to work blasting rock. He rejoins his old crew but his new personality is not a hit. The crew complains he’s unreliable and rude. (Do you guys think it could be because of the whole iron pole shattering his skull thing? Give him a break!) But the boss, who fears neither hell nor a workman’s comp lawsuit, gives Phineas his walking papers.

Phineas spends the next few years bouncing around the country doing odd jobs: cleaning stables, serving as a circus sideshow attraction, and the like. Then he and the tamping rod move down to Chile (the one in South America) to drive stagecoaches.

They spend the next seven years in Chile, working a regular route. Some people say that during this time, Phineas’ former personality gradually returned. He couldn’t be too unreliable if he can hold a job for seven years in a foreign country, right?

Phineas and the tamping iron had a good run in Chile, but after seven years, they are homesick for the US and decide to head back home. The Gages are now living in San Francisco, and Phineas joins them there. He’s only been back for a few months when he has an epileptic seizure. He dies at age 36.

Dr. Harlow learns of Phineas’ death a few years later. He writes to the Gages, expressing his sympathy and requests his former patient’s skull. This is yet another seldom-discussed incredible part of the story. He asks for the skull? That is a pretty bold request no matter how you look at it. I said he was quite a guy.

Fortunately, the Gages aren’t easily offended, and they agreeably have Phineas dug up, and ship his skull off to Dr. Harlow. Gage’s brother thoughtfully includes the tamping iron, which was stashed who knows where since Phineas died.

Dr. Harlow wills the skull and tamping iron (now a package deal) to Harvard School of Medicine when he dies. They are still exhibited there today.


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