Today in History: Phineas Gage Survives an Iron Rod Shot Through His Skull

Today in History: Phineas Gage Survives an Iron Rod Shot Through His Skull

by M.C. Millman 

On September 13, 1848, Phineas Gage, an American railroad foreman, miraculously survived what is known as the "American Crowbar Case".

Gage was directing a group of workers blasting rock to prepare the roadbed for a railroad in Vermont. While using an iron rod to pack explosives into a hole in the rock, the powder detonated. The blast hurled the rod upward, entering Gage's left cheek. The rod continued behind the left eye, tearing through his brain and exiting Gage's skull, landing around 80 feet away. 

Gage was thrown onto his back and experienced some convulsions. Miraculously, Gage not only survived the initial injury but was able to speak and walk to a nearby cart to be seen by a doctor. At the doctor's, Gage vomited, pressing about half a teacupful of his brain out of the exit wound in his skull, causing it to fall to the floor. 

Later that evening, a still-conscious Gage said he would be back at work in "a day or two". His road to recovery was bumpy, but he felt well enough to leave the house within a month of the incident. The rod destroyed most of the area in the brain, known as the frontal lobe. Gage also lost vision in his left eye, impacted by the rod. 

Many of Gage's friends described his personality as changed after the accident. Some have described Gage post-accident as an almost different person entirely. Gage is known as the "man who began neuroscience" because his story was the first to suggest a connection between brain trauma and personality change. 

Gage's case was vital to the field of neuroscience. He helped scientists understand the role of the frontal lobe - specifically with contributions to personality. His behavior changes after the accident were strong evidence that specific areas of the brain were responsible for unique functions. His case also demonstrated how resilient the human brain is. 

Almost twelve years after the accident, Gage suffered a series of epileptic convulsions and passed away. Gage's skull and iron rod were given to John M. Harlow, the physician who cared for Gage after the accident. Today, the skull and rod are displayed at the Harvard School of Medicine. 

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