The Internet Finds Phineas Gage

As far as medical curiosities go few are as famous in professional circles as Phineas Gage. Gage was 25 years old and working as a foreman for a blasting crew preparing a railroad bed outside of Cavendish, Vermont when, on September 13, 1848 he became the victim of an unfortunate accident. While using an iron rod to tamp gunpowder and sand into a hole in the rock a spark was struck and the resulting explosion sent the 3’7″, 13 and 1/2 pound rod through his left cheek and out the top of his skull. Amazingly, he did not die. When he was brought to Harvard University, doctors there made a cast of his head. It, along with Gage’s skull and the tamping iron that changed his life, remain on display at the university’s Warren Anatomical Museum.

What happened to Gage after the accident mostly comes to us through a report by Dr. Henry Jacob Bigelow, published in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Gage apparently returned to work but was much changed since his accident, he was “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity”. (Author’s Note: It has come to my attention that the basis for this quote comes, in fact, from Gage’s physician John Martyn Harlow. See comments.) For a time he exhibited himself in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. He also worked with Currier’s livery stable and coach business for a year and a half, and in Chile in the same capacity. He died in 1860, 11 1/2 years after the accident, in California. After his death a litany of odd facts were added to those 11 1/2 years. Gage’s mother related to Harlow that he would often make up stories to entertain his nieces and nephews. This may have contributed to later stories that embellished his personality shift, turning him into a abusive lunatic and liar. It was also related that he became a slovenly drifter who toured with circus sideshows, most likely due to people seeing the name P.T. Barnum, more famous for his circus than the American Museum.

The most glaring omission in the life of Phineas Gage, however, has been the lack of a photograph of the man. That is, until recently. In 2007 Beverly Wilgus posted a photo on her Flickr account that she and her husband Jack had owned for over 30 years. Thinking the man was holding a harpoon, they titled it “Daguerreotype – One Eyed Man with Harpoon”. There was some discussion as to whether the object in the gentleman’s hands was actually a harpoon and, in December 2008, a commenter suggested that “maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.” Six months later, a few road trips and a correspondence with a leading expert on Gage under their belt, the Wilguses are certain they have, indeed, the only image of the man. In August the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences will be publishing an article detailing their findings.

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10 Responses to “The Internet Finds Phineas Gage”

  1. Limespark Says:

    He was quite a handsome guy, that’s so incredible to have a picture like that languishing away for so many years. Makes you wonder what else is out there lurking, waiting to blow our minds. I’ve always found his story so fascinating and it’s nice to have a face for him.

  2. Matthew L. Lena (Boston, Mass.) Says:

    I’m afraid this post has a few things mixed up, most importantly that H.J. Bigelow was *not* the source of the “fitful, irreverant” description of Gage; the source was Gage’s physician John Martyn Harlow. Now that that’s been cleared up…

    The Gage daguerreotype was identified because someone “just happened to remember” something. Malcolm Macmillan and I, who have been researching Gage for years, hope lighting can strike again. Without your knowing, you 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 head injuries today.

    Below is a summary of answers 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.

    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 [email protected] will be very much appreciated. (Please use email instead of posting a reply here.)

    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.

    P.S. You can read Jack and Beverly Wilgus’ remarkable story of how they came to realize Phineas Gage had been staring at them from their living room wall (so to speak) right here:

  3. Sam Says:

    Damn! I used to assume he was a repugnant asshole post-accident, but now I’m rethinking my judgement–I wouldn’t mind if he were “profane” with me.

  4. Patricia Says:

    I feel like an ignoramus for not knowing his story but hey, now I do! Very cool back story for the discovery of the image.

  5. Fausty Says:

    Gage’s case plays a central role in D’Amasio’s excellent introduction to modern neuroscientific understanding of the emotion/rationality false dichotomy, “Descartes Error.” I believe he’s come up in several of Oliver Sacks’ works, as well.

  6. links for 2009-07-30 | Nerdcore Says:

    […] The Internet Finds Phineas Gage Das Internet findet das einzige Foto eines historischen medizinischen Wunders. (tags: History Medics Vintage Photos Flickr) […]

  7. Mer Says:

    Wow… Phineas was a handsome cuss! I had no idea!

  8. Ed Autumn Says:

    Wow!! All the times I heard the story of ol’ Phineas Gage I pictured this older, worn and possibly disgruntled fellow. Despite the fact that he was most certainly a bit of a jerk after the incident, I may agree with Sam haha! He is handsome :)

  9. Matthew L. Lena (Boston, Mass.) Says:

    In response to the praise for Damasio’s book, I’m reluctantly reposting here my reply to similar praise on another blog:

    I cannot join in endorsing Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error”, which is “complete” (as you say) only in the sense of being complete fiction in its treatment of Gage. Fantasy elements include “Yankee Doodle” Gage “dancing his tapshoes over ties and tracks” (Gage’s work came well before tracklaying); females warned clear of Gage (there’s no indication of this); the drinking, brawling wastrel Gage (in fact Gage supported himself all his life at hard, honest work); and Gage as his physician’s “life-consuming interest” (Dr. Harlow casually lost touch with Gage soon after the accident, and after his 1868 paper never wrote about Gage again). And through 15 years’ reprintings, Damasio still dates Gage’s death incorrectly!

    Apparently reasoning that Gage must have displayed symptoms similar those those seen in modern frontal-lobe patients, Damasio presents such symptoms as if they were *fact* about Gage (which they emphatically are not) then uses Gage to elucidate the behavior of modern patients — who were the basis for his description of Gage in the first place! Thus we have what Descartes might have called Damasio’s Error: *raisonnement circulaire.*

    Damasio’s theories may have merit, but he really ought to stop offering fiction about Gage as evidence for them.

  10. Roberto Casagrande Says:

    Uncovered another portrait of Phineas Gage?
    It’s on you to decide if the picture on this site may be attributed to the younger Phineas Gage. Please consult my website and see some comparison studies and the opinions of some of the leading experts on Phineas Gage.