Phineas Gage

Image of Phineas Gage

Back in Cavendish,1848, the start of an amazing discovery took place. Phineas Gage leads a railroad construction team. At the time, he was a reliable foreman and knew his men well. His boss always thought Phineas was the best foreman they had ever had. Well before the accident happened, that is. His job was to blast rocks to make way for the railroad, and it almost killed him. Phineas was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something was off this time because he got distracted and was just sitting with his favorite tool, the tamping iron, when the explosion shoots it into his head. Normally this would have killed somebody, but not too long after Phineas was talking, moving and was even able to be cheerful. 

When Dr. Harlow, the local Cavendish doctor, saw Phineas, he didn’t think it was too serious. Phineas believes this too and says that he “does not care to see his friends, as he shall be at work in a few days.” Dr. Harlow drains and dresses the wound but claims that “god healed him.” His youth, iron constitution, good luck, and good care also played a big role in him healing. When Phineas finally gets back at work, he is different. He is much nastier and ruder to his coworkers, eventually, they get tired of his attitude, and the boss fires him.  

Phineas’ injury supports two opposing beliefs about the brain. ”Both sides seize him as proof of their beliefs” says John Fleischman, author of “Phineas Gage A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science”. The Whole Brainers and the localizers. The Whole Brainers thought that the brain was one intelligence and if one part was harmed, the thoughts that went there could just go somewhere else. Among their beliefs is one that explains how the brain is made up of formless jelly, which is where thoughts and commands come from. One of the doctors that looked at Phineas’ case, Dr. Bigelow, was a Whole Brainer. The way Phineas’ injury backs up the Whole Brainers is him still being able to move and functioning even with a hole in his brain. The opposing side, the Localizers believed that the brain is made up of sections that control emotions. The bumps and divots on the skull can tell what kind of person they are or will be. For example, if there’s a depression over a certain organ they won’t be as affectionate towards kids. Dr. Nelson Sizer is a bigtime localizer in New England because of all the speeches he gave about phrenology. Another Localizer was Dr. Harlow, the man who helped Phineas “recover” and dressed his wounds. Phineas’ injury supports the Localizers by how his personality changed after the incident. He went from trusting and amiable to ill-mannered. In any case both sides were mostly wrong, but did end up leading to the right ideas. 

Phineas travels all around from then on and never ended up returning to Cavendish or his mother’s home in New Hampshire. Wherever he went, the tamping iron that put the hole in his head, went with him. After roaming through New England, he finally ends up P.T. Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway in Ney York City. There are rumors that Phineas worked at this freak show. He brought a model of his skull and demonstrated how the tamping iron went into his skull. People could read the full story in the pamphlet and for just ten cents extra they could look at the top of his head to see part of his brain through the thin, sort of translucent, layer of skin. Nobody knows how much of this is this is the truth and how much is just a rumor, but it was confirmed that he was in New York. 

Phineas’ health was good so, in 1852, his next stop was in Chile. While he may have had problems with people, he got along with horses just fine. So that’s why for seven years he was a stagecoach. He controlled the reins of six horses to take people to and from Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile. 

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