Blog Posts

10
Apr

RetroScience: How A Railroad Construction Foreman Changed Neuroscience

Want to travel back in time? In our weekly “Retro Science” series, we’re digging up visual artifacts that capture fascinating moments from science history, including surprising studies, outdated inventions, and breakthrough achievements. By recapturing science’s impressive feats and most amusing flops, RetroScience will remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

Before 1860 (exact date unknown): Daguerreotype of Phineas P. Gage holding the iron rod that went through his skull. From the Gage family of Texas photo collection.
Before 1860 (exact date unknown): Daguerreotype of Phineas P. Gage holding the iron rod that went through his skull. From the Gage family of Texas photo collection.

The history of neuroscience was changed forever by a railroad construction foreman with a rod in his head. In celebration of Neuroscience Week at “Secret Life,” we’re visiting his peculiar story, one that has captured the interest of neuroscientists around the world.

In the late nineteenth century, Phineas Gage (1823-1860) had a 43-inch iron rod rip through his head during a rock blasting accident – and lived to tell the story. The incident blinded his left eye and destroyed much of his brain’s left frontal lobe, which reportedly changed his personality and behavior. According to a 1868 physician’s report, “his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’”

Before the injury, Gage was described as hardworking, responsible, and shrewd. After the incident, he was described as irreverent and impatient, with “a vainglorious tendency to show off his wound.” His personality was so altered that he could no longer keep his position as foreman.

Gage’s case was the first to suggest that damage to specific parts of the brain might affect personality, and has provoked much discussion on cerebral localization, the idea that different parts of the brain correlate to different functions. His story is a mind-blowing piece of neuroscience history and appears in many psychology and neuroscience textbooks today.

skull
Documentation of Phineas Gage's exhumed skull and iron rod. From A Descriptive Catalog of the Warren Anatomical Museum (1870).

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Jaime Sunwoo

    Jaime Sunwoo is the digital media intern of the Secret Life Blog. She is currently a senior at Yale University. When she’s in the lab, her secret is that she makes art and when she’s in art class, her secret is that she enjoys science research. Sometimes she combines both interests, making fungal sculptures and botanical drawings. She enjoys learning about scientists and how their varying interests can lead to interdisciplinary work.