Disasters · Virginia

Phineus Gage

September 13, 1848
Cavendish, Virginia
Phineus Gage is impaled through the skull by a tamping iron

Gage had been using the tamping iron (pictured with Gage in the daguerreotype) to tamp down material onto blasting powder while preparing a roadbed. He was distracted temporarily by another worker calling to him, and as he looked over his shoulder his head inadvertently went above the blast hole. He opened his mouth to speak when the iron struck a rock, creating a spark and igniting the blasting power which propelled the iron through the left side of Gage’s face upwards behind his left eye through the left part of his brain and out through his skull.

Though Gage’s brain was distinctly pulsating in plain view, he was able to talk and walk with minimal assistance within minutes of the accident. Treatment of his wounds included “cut off the fungi which were sprouting out from the top of the brain and filling the opening, and made free application of caustic (crystalline silver nitrate) to them.” Unable to return to railroad work, Gage became a sort of “living exhibit” at Barnum’s American Museum in New York City for a time.

Gage died on May 21, 1860 after months of suffering from seizures.


Copyright: Originally from the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus; now in the Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard Medical School.

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