Cabinet-card portrait of brain-injury survivor Phineas Gage (1823–1860), shown holding the tamping iron which injured him.
It took an explosion and 13 pounds of iron to usher in the modern era of neuroscience.
In 1848, a 25-year-old railroad worker named Phineas Gage was blowing up rocks to clear the way for a new rail line in Cavendish, Vt. He would drill a hole, place an explosive charge, then pack in sand using a 13-pound metal bar known as a tamping iron.
But in this instance, the metal bar created a spark that touched off the charge. That, in turn, “drove this tamping iron up and out of the hole, through his left cheek, behind his eye socket, and out of the top of his head,” says Jack Van Horn, an associate professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
Gage didn’t die. But the tamping iron destroyed much of his brain’s left frontal lobe, and Gage’s once even-tempered personality changed dramatically.
“He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity, which was not previously his custom,” wrote John Martyn Harlow, the physician who treated Gage after the accident.
This sudden personality transformation is why Gage shows up in so many medical textbooks, says Malcolm Macmillan, an honorary professor at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and the author of An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage.
“He was the first case where you could say fairly definitely that injury to the brain produced some kind of change in personality,” Macmillan says.
And that was a big deal in the mid-1800s, when the brain’s purpose and inner workings were largely a mystery. At the time, phrenologists were still assessing people’s personalities by measuring bumps on their skull.
Gage’s famous case would help establish brain science as a field, says Allan Ropper, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.