Phineas Gage: A Rod Went Through His Skull
A memorial plaque to one of America's oddest celebrities is bolted to a rock in the tiny town of Cavendish, Vermont. It honors Phineas P. Gage, who had a 13-pound iron rod blown into his skull, through his brain, and out the top of his head. That's an interesting story, but what makes it plaque-worthy is that Gage survived. In fact, he never even lost consciousness.
Phineas Gage is one of the superstars of American anatomy, a firmament twinkling with the likes of Chang and Eng, the Soap Lady, and the World's Tallest Man. His presence has lingered in Vermont long after his contemporaries have been forgotten. We even found his tale in a bookstore in nearby Rutland -- in a book for teenagers about the brain.
The accident happened on September 13, 1848. Gage, a foreman at a railroad construction site, absentmindedly pounded his tamping rod into a hole filled with blasting powder. The explosives blew the 43-inch-long rod upward and completely through Gage's head, landing with a thud about 30 yards away (Note to Phineas Gage impersonators: walking around with a rod stuck out of both sides of your head is historically incorrect).
Gage was taken to the town doctor, John Harlow, who plugged the holes in Gage's skull and kept him under observation. Amazingly, he was alive, fully conscious, and except for the loss of one eye, experienced no lasting physical handicaps. He was, however, "mentally greatly changed," as noted on the plaque. "Once an efficient and capable foreman, he was now increasingly erratic, irritable, and profane."
Gage lived for a dozen subsequent cuss-filled years. No longer the model employee, he used his fame to get out of New England. Popular lore has it that he carried the iron rod around with him as a cane, although this is not mentioned on the plaque. He had himself displayed as a freak at Barnum's Museum in New York City, drove stagecoaches in Chile, and eventually died in San Francisco of epilepsy -- a brain disorder.
Gage's body rested in peace only briefly. It was dug up and the skull was sent to Dr. Harlow, who donated it to Harvard, which now displays it in a glass case (along with the iron rod) at its Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston.
Unlike in Gage's lifetime, photos of the head and rod are forbidden at the Harvard museum. But you can take as many pictures of the plaque in Cavendish as you want. The rock sits on a well-maintained empty lot formerly occupied by the Dutton House & Tavern (which was dragged off to the Shelburne Museum). In addition to Gage's story, the plaque features a map directing visitors to the site of the accident. If you want to stretch your legs, you can walk three-quarters of a mile down the curving section of old railroad track to the spot where Gage had his explosive intersection with history.
Other people have similarly survived severe metal rod brain trauma. A Brazilian construction worker in 2012 suffered no lasting effects after an iron pole fell off of a building and through his head. In 2003 a man in Truckee, California, had an 18-inch-long drill thrust into his eye socket and clear through his skull, pushing his brain hemispheres aside (Doctors had to remove it by unscrewing it). There have been other miraculous cases as well, but none have matched the freakish flair of Phineas P. Gage.
Cavendish remembered him in 1998 -- the 150th anniversary of his accident -- with the plaque on the rock. Several pop and punk bands have named themselves in his honor, and the iconic Gage image of a skull impaled with a spike -- although wrongheaded -- is available for sale on everything from sweatshirts to beverage cozies.