This Day in History – September 13th, 1848

Phineas_Gage_Cased_Daguerreotype_WilgusPhoto2008-12-19_Unretouched_ColorPhineas P. Gage (1823 – May 21, 1860) was an American railroad construction foreman remembered for his improbable survival of a rock-blasting accident on September 13th, 1848 in which a large iron rod was driven completely through his head, destroying much of his brain’s left frontal lobe, and for that injury’s reported effects on his personality and behavior over the remaining twelve years of his life—effects so profound that (for a time at least) friends saw him as “no longer Gage.”

Long known as “the American Crowbar Case”—once termed “the case which more than all others is calculated to excite our wonder, impair the value of prognosis, and even to subvert our physiological doctrines”Phineas Gage influenced nineteenth-century discussion about the mind and brain, particularly debate on cerebral localization, and was perhaps the first case to suggest that damage to specific parts of the brain might induce specific personality changes.

Gage is a fixture in the curricula of neurology, psychology and related disciplines (seeneuroscience), and is frequently mentioned in books and academic papers; he even has a minor place in popular culture. Despite this celebrity the body of established fact about Gage and what he was like (before or after his injury) is small, which has allowed “the fitting of almost any theory [desired] to the small number of facts we have”‍ —Gage having been cited, over the years, in support of various theories of the brain entirely contradictory to one another. Historically, published accounts (including scientific ones) have almost always severely distorted and exaggerated Gage’s behavioral changes, frequently contradicting the known facts

A report of Gage’s physical and mental condition shortly before his death implies that Gage’s most serious mental changes were temporary, so that in later life he was far more functional, and socially far better adapted, than in the years immediately after his accident. A social recovery hypothesis suggests that Gage’s employment as a stagecoach driver in Chile provided daily structure allowing him to relearn lost social and personal skills.

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