Thursday, July 30, 2009

Behold! Phineas Gage revealed!

The Los Angeles Times reports that a daguerreotype depicting Phineas Gage has been discovered. In the next issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, an article establishing the identity of the man holding an iron rod (see photo to right) is that of Mr. Gage. This is the only known photograph of perhaps the most legendary neurology patient in history. To illustrate the executive function orchestrated by the prefrontal lobes, medical students throughout the country are told the story of the railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage, who, in 1848, suffered an accident on the job which resulted in a 13-pound iron rod shooting through the front of his brain. Gage survived the accident, and lived 11 years more. But he was never the same, exhibiting "frontal release" signs characterized by disinhibition and impulsivity.

The photograph was discovered by Jack and Beverly Wilgus, a couple from Massachusetts who owned the photograph for 30 years, thinking it depicted a whaler holding a harpoon. When they posted the picture online, an anonymous tipster suggested it might be Gage. The LA Times article continues the story: "Intrigued, the Wilguses compared their image to that of a life mask at Harvard Medical School's Warren Anatomical Museum and found it could be superimposed perfectly, with scars lining up correctly. Apparent writing on the metal rod in the image matches writing on Gage's iron rod, which is also in the Warren Museum."

The four-second video above is a computer simulation of the path taken by the tamping iron through Mr. Gage's skull. (Source: Ratiu P, Talos IF. The Tale of Phineas Gage: Digitally Remastered. New England Journal of Medicine. Vol 351:e21. Number 23. December 2, 2004.)


Adam King said...

This is a great discivery!

By the way, I have that epidermoid case nearly completed and can drop by with it sometime if you want to see it.

Brian E. Moore, MD, MEd said...

Thanks, Adam! Bring that epidermoid cyst presentation by my office when you get a chance.

Anonymous said...

The Gage daguerreotype was an important discovery made though the chance of someone “just noticing” something. Malcolm Macmillan and I, who have been researching Gage for years, hope lighting will strike again. Without your knowing, you the reader

may already have important information on Phineas, or if you are located in any of the places mentioned below, you could help
look for information.

And it’s important, because a better understanding of Gage could improve treatments for persons with brain injuries today.

Below is a summary of answers on Phineas Gage we are looking for. Many relate not to Gage himself, but rather people he met or places he’d been. Information might be in letters and diaries; medical and business records; town, police and court files; local newspapers; or in the archives of churches, hospitals and literary, professional, historical and genealogical societies. We especially hope organizations will search their one-of-a-kind materials not published in book form. FOR MORE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS, and why answers might help us better understand Phineas, please visit .

IN CHILE (1852-60): We want to know about Drs. William and Henry Trevitt, Masonic lodges, Methodist churches, and English-language newspapers, schools and businesses. Do you know anyone who can help with such things?

IN NEW ENGLAND (1848-54): Can you find newspaper or diary accounts of Phineas’ accident, of his travels exhibiting himself and his “iron,” or of his reported preaching at Methodist revivals in Sterling, Mass.? In Concord, NH records of the Abbot-Downing coachworks could identify “three enterprising New Englanders” who may have set up the coach line for which Phineas drove in Chile; in Hanover you might discover Phineas’ duties at Currier’s Inn, or a Dartmouth professor who met him; and somewhere in Wilton may be the papers of Henry Trevitt.

IN CALIFORNIA (1860- ): Where is the missing undertaker’s ledger showing where Gage died? What can you discover about Dr.

William Jackson Wentworth (Alameda Co.) or the papers of Joseph Stalder (d.1931)? Are you descended from Phineas’s nieces/nephew Hannah, Delia, Mary, Alice, or Frank B. Shattuck? Can we learn more about Frank at the School for the Deaf?

IN OHIO (1860- ): Can you find anything about Henry Trevitt’s time at Starling Medical College in Columbus, Prof. J.W. Hamilton, or William Trevitt’s papers?

ANYWHERE: If you are related to the Cowdrey, Davis, Ames, or Kimball families, are you also related to Phineas’ doctor, John Martyn Harlow? Do you know of ship passenger lists (Boston, New York, Chile, Panama, S.F.) that might show Gage family movements? Do you have Gold Rush ancestors who stopped in Valparaiso, Chile? And of course, letters mentioning Gage could have gone anywhere.

We would be pleased to assist teachers (in New England, S.F., even Chile?) in creating a class project involving students’ search for family papers or local lore about Gage.

There are more clues in Stillwater and Northfield, MN; Santa Clara, San Rafael, and S.F., CA; Cavendish, Castleton, Woodstock, and Burlington, VT; Lebanon, Enfield and Wilton, NH; Albany, NY, Buda, IL, the National Library of Medicine, and other places.

At are details on how you can help by following such clues. Your help or inquiries to will be very much appreciated. (Please use email instead of posting a reply here.)

Matthew L. Lena (Boston, Mass.)

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