On September 13, 1848, a 25-year-old railroad foreman named Phineas Gage was working on a railroad bed in Cavendish, Vermont. He was packing gunpowder into a hole with a tamping iron rod when he turned his head back toward his men.
Immediately after, the powder detonated, sending the three-and-a-half-foot long, 1.25-inch thick, 13-pound tamping iron soaring through the left side of Gage’s skull.
The tamping iron made short work of Gage. It ripped through his left cheek, continued through his brain and exited the top of his skull, eventually landing around 25 feet away. But what happened next was the truly amazing part that changed neuroscience forever.
Not only did Gage survive, but, according to legend, he didn’t even lose consciousness. The story goes that later that day, he told a doctor “Here is business enough for you.”
Incredibly surviving an accident that took out his left eye and chunks of his brain made Gage a medical miracle in his own lifetime, but it was the subsequent observations made by doctor John Martyn Harlow that made the name “Phineas Gage” recognizable to this day.
According to Harlow, Gage was “no longer Gage” after he recovered from his accident. He went through a severe personality change and seemed to have lost the very qualities that made him human.
As Harlow wrote, there was no balance between his “intellectual faculties and animal propensities,” and he showed “little deference for his fellows” and frequently said “the grossest profanity.” Because of this, the railroad company who had employed him wouldn’t take him back — and worker’s compensation wouldn’t be enacted in the United States for more than a half century.
So, Gage then moved to New Hampshire to work at a stable, and then to Chile to drive coaches, until he finally moved in with relatives in San Francisco, where he died in 1860 at the age of 36 after a string of seizures.
Gage has since become the most famous case in the history of neuroscience. His case was the first to link brain trauma with personality change — a fact that most of today’s introductory psychology textbooks refer to — and scientists are still using his case today to learn about how our brains are wired.
Next, discover other bizarre cases, including Phineas Gage’s, that make up the real X-Files. Then, learn about others who lived through incredible circumstances with these astounding survival stories.