Today in History: Phineas Gage and the Impaled Skull

Today in 1848, Phineas Gage was struck in the head with a tamping iron.

Gage, the foreman of a railroad crew, was working in Vermont to clear rocks out of hills to allow the installation of railroad tracks. However, on this day in 1848, he was injured in a grave manner.

Normally, rock is removed out of the path of a railroad through blasting it apart. Workers will make a hole in the rock and fill it with gunpower. A fuse is snaked down into the hole and then a worker fills it with soil. Then a foreman would tamp down the soil with his tamping iron. The fuse would be lit, blasting the rock to bits.

Gage used his tamping iron in such a hole, but no soil had been added on top of the gunpowder. The iron made a spark, which ignited the gunpowder. This explosion blew the tamping iron up under Gage’s cheekbone, through the frontal lobe of his brain, and through the rest of his skull. The iron flew 25 feet away, taking a bit of Gage’s brain with it.

Surprisingly, Gage survived and supposedly never even lost consciousness. He also survived treatment in an era where bacteria was unheard of. Gage lost the eye that the iron had impaled behind it. Despite his survival, Gage was changed. His family reported his mannerisms and personality that of a different person. Before, Gage was known as an intelligent hard worker. After the accident, he was described as obstinate, using profanity, and irresponsible, like a child.

Gage lived until May 1860. His injury is still described in psychology and medical textbooks as an example of the impact of brain trauma to personality. His skull, with the tamping iron through it, is displayed at Harvard.

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