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The story of Phineas Gage - The Ex-Communicator

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July 30th, 2009


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02:52 pm - The story of Phineas Gage
The story of Phineas Gage is well known. In 1848 he was helping to build a railway, when an explosion drove an iron bar through his head. Miraculously he survived. His is a famous case because following the extensive brain damage he underwent a personality change, emphasising the link between self and brain-matter.
The physician who tended Gage’s wounds, Dr. John Harlow, recounted the story... Gage, after the accident was “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity, (which was not previously his custom)... Gage was no longer Gage.’’

There's an article about him in the Boston Globe which you can read here.

That article includes a previously-undiscovered photo of the man, holding the iron bar which shot through his head.

Before you click on that link you might think you are going to see an horrendous mess. But no - Phineas Gage is scarred but tough and good looking. After the accident he lived in Chile and drove a stage coach - so it sounds to me like he managed pretty well, and wasn't the mess he is often portrayed to be in popular accounts. He eventually died of seizures, 12 years after the brain injury.

Still conscious, with a 3-foot-long 13-pound iron bar through his face, Gage said to the doctor 'Here is business enough for you.'

This makes me think that he had qualities, humour intelligence and toughness, which helped him to survive. The impression I get from his face - am I reading too much into a photo - the impression I get is of calm will. And while I would agree that the complexity of personality and memory is tied in with the inert matter of your brain, I also think there is this burning point of Will, infinitely narrow in time, which forms the structure of the brain by forcing connections, and can reform it after an accident or stroke.

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:buymeaclue
Date:July 30th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
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Wow. Thank you for linking that. So cool.
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From:communicator
Date:July 30th, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
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I'm so shallow - 'Hey - not bad looking!'
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 30th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
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The impression of Gage's face as reflecting "calm will" is bang on to the description of him (pre-accident) by his physcian John Martyn Harlow: "an iron will as well as an iron frame...very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation."

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 will 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 www.deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/PgQuestn.php .

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 www.deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/PgQuestn.php are details on how you can help by following such clues. Your help or inquiries to malcolm.macmillan@unimelb.edu.au 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.

Matthew L. Lena (Boston, Mass.)
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From:communicator
Date:July 30th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
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Very, very fascinating Matthew and thanks for posting. I don't have any local connections of that kind, as I live in England, but someone else reading this blog may have. I hope you continue to accumulate information.

Edited at 2009-07-30 08:05 pm (UTC)
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From:espresso_addict
Date:July 30th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
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I like the 'grossest profanity' bit -- as if it would be normal for someone with such a serious injury to say nothing coarser than 'Bother, I've a bit of a headache.'
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From:communicator
Date:July 30th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
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Yes. He later went to live in Deadwood.
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From:sjkasabi
Date:July 30th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
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My grandmother's dementia manifested to me (in my twenties) as a loss of the fierce will I had always associated with her; it was a much greater change in her than the forgetfulness.

So I always worry, what makes it go? Those little plaques, sure, but why?
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From:communicator
Date:July 31st, 2009 07:57 am (UTC)
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Yes. It's like we can struggle against it for so long, and then it overcomes us. There's a man at work recovering from a stroke at present, and he obviously is overcoming it, because the damage is limited enough. Amazingly it seems Gage was also able to get it back, but dementia seems to progress faster than a person can fight it.
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From:azdak
Date:July 31st, 2009 08:10 am (UTC)
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Very interesting - and you're dead right, he's a really good-looking man. Can I ask, though, what you mean by will being "infinitely narrow in time"?
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From:communicator
Date:July 31st, 2009 08:16 am (UTC)
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I'm imagining a burning point moving down a fuse. The Planck moment - not of course literally 'infinitely' narrow - in which we exist. That is, we could, and probably will, lose our memories, but the self exists as this momentary energetic movement inside the brain which is creative and assertive.
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From:azdak
Date:July 31st, 2009 10:00 am (UTC)
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So what Oliver Sacks calls a "Humean being" - a succession of selfhood states unconnected by memory?
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From:communicator
Date:July 31st, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)
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I don't know that, but it sounds like it.

I'm wondering whether there is a selfhood which is independent of loss of memory or faculties, which does connect the states (for instance, the person continues to be determined, or continues to be open-minded or whatever) even when severely damaged.
From:andymydear
Date:July 31st, 2009 03:56 pm (UTC)
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Hey, I totally and completely apologize if you don't want a comment like this; if that's the case, feel free to let me know, and it won't happen again. I was just wondering if you wanted to join a semi-new community, kiediselite. Trying to completely revamp the place (as I was just made mod). All suggestions are definitely welcome. I really want to get the place more active, more fun.
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From:communicator
Date:July 31st, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
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probably not for me but thanks anyway, it's always worth a try
From:andymydear
Date:July 31st, 2009 11:18 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for letting me know. I apologize for buggin' you.


I totally love your icon. It's my favourite show.

Edited at 2009-07-31 11:18 pm (UTC)

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