The Incredible Survival of Phineas Gage

The story of Phineas Gage is one of incredible survival, perseverance, and struggle as the man with an enormous spike in his brain defied explanation from experts and he quickly found himself forever embedded in the history books as the man who defied medical science and survived against all odds an injury that essentially should have killed him.

Gage was 25 in 1848 acting as foreman to a work crew.  Since the blasting of the nearby granite had to be done with gunpowder, Gage was tamping gunpowder into a crack in the wall to help blast it to pieces.  Using a tamping iron no thinner than a railroad spike, Phineas set about the work of tamping the gunpowder into the wall when suddenly someone yelled out, “Hey Phineas!”  As Gage turned his head a spark went off in the gunpowder causing a premature explosion which almost took his life, but him turning his head also saved it.

The spike flew from his hands and shot clear through his skull leaving behind a wound no smaller than the largest portion of the spike.  The over three foot long spike soared through the air and clattered on the roadside some thirty feet away.  The spike, according to medical reports destroyed his frontal lobe almost entirely.  What happened in the next few minutes as a small crowd gathered near the man with the hole in his skull would amaze medical science to this day.  Phineas Gage sat up and started talking.  Obviously injured, he was sent home where physician Dr. John Harlowe looked over him.  The doctor looked over Phineas as he slowly progressed into a fever, soon after speaking only in monosyllables and very weak he seemed unresponsive and was comatose for several days until the beginning of October when he finally recovered.  And by November he was almost completely back to perfect health.

To the shocked doctors who looked him over after his recovery, Gage was the picture of good health aside from the loss of sight in his left eye and a soft spot where the skull had not reformed yet.  Still, shocked doctors found it impossible to say how Gage had survived such a traumatic injury.  The discoveries from his case are often cited by neurologists even today.  At the time, the now defunct pseudoscience of phrenology was still in full working capacity, and therefore Gage’s behavior subsequently was studied by several from the field.  Phrenologists indicated that his survival was due to the fact that the “organs” within his brain that served to function the vital organs were not damaged, but that the “Organs of veneration and benevolence” were destroyed as a result of his injury.

As a result of a possible conspiracy by phrenologists to alter medical facts to back their claims, some of the testimony written down subsequently of Gage’s behavior after his injury has been disputed as exaggerated or completely fabricated.  It is known for sure that Gage held several jobs after his injury, including working at a circus where his peculiar injury drew many crowds as he presented to them the spike that had been driven through his skull.  One of the more dubious claims made about the survivor is that after his injury he became an alcoholic and a womanizer with a short temper.  Without extensive documentation, however, this has fallen as a possibility.  What is known, however, is that Phineas Gage’s story is an incredible one of survival and flies in the face of medical science.  Gage died of epilepsy suspected to have been brought on by his injury.  His skull along with the rod which was a source of his injury is on display at Harvard University.