Charlie Buttrey

February 25, 2021

This VT Digger article from earlier in the week reminded me of the astonishing tale of Phineas Gage.

In 1848, Gage was part of a crew that was blasting ledge in the Vermont town of Cavendish for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, which was laying tracks through the town.

Blasting was dangerous work.  It involved creating an explosive charge by pouring powder into a drilled hole, dropping in a fuse, tamping it (gently!) with a heavy metal rod, pouring sand into the hole and then tamping more vigorously to form a plug that would direct the force of the eventual explosion down into the rock.

On that September day, Gage either accidentally dropped the tamping iron into the hole or tamped too hard. In any event, the iron — which was 3 and a half feet long, more than an inch in diameter and weighed 13 pounds — rocketed out of the hole, shot through his left cheek, passed behind his left eye and flew out through the top of his head, landing nearly 100 feet away. The impact knocked Gage to the ground, where he lay convulsing.

That was not the end of Phineas Gage.

Remarkably, he not only survived, he lived another 12 years. Unfortunately, his personality changed significantly (those who knew him said that after the accident “Gage was no longer Gage”), and he become combative, irresponsible and unreliable. After working in a stable in Hanover, New Hampshire for a year and a half, he rambled around the country, eventually landing a gig as a living part of P.T. Barnum’s museum.

Gage, who began to suffer from seizures, died in San Francisco at the age of 36 in 1860.

His skull and the tamping iron now reside at the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard.

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