The tamping rod that blew through Phineas Gage's brain 163 years ago damaged only a small portion of his brain, but it disrupted a much larger proportion of his neural connections, UCLA researchers reported Wednesday. The finding, based on imaging of Gage's skull, may help explain the behavioral changes he endured following the accident.
Phineas P. Gage was a construction supervisor for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad. On Sept. 13, 1848, he was working at a site near Cavendish, Vt. He had drilled a hole in a rock that was to be removed then filled the hole with blasting powder. After instructing an assistant to pour sand on top of the powder to cushion it, he turned away briefly. Unfortunately, the assistant did not follow his directions and when Gage began tamping down the powder with a 13-pound, 3-foot-7-inch iron rod in the next step of the procedure, the powder exploded, shooting the rod clean through his cheek and brain.
The rod was later found 25 feet away, covered with blood and brain tissue. Surprisingly, Gage, then 25, recovered. But his behavior changed abruptly.
No longer an affable young man, he became fitful, irreverent and profane. Unable to retain his railroad job because of the personality changes, he took a succession of somewhat menial jobs, including as a stagecoach driver in South America. He was eventually reunited with his family in San Francisco, where he died of an epileptic seizure 12 years after the fateful accident.