Phineas Gage: Neuroscience's Most Famous Patient

An accident with a tamping iron made Phineas Gage history's most famous brain-injury survivor

"Here is business enough for you," Gage told the first doctor to treat him after a premature detonation on a railroad-building site turned a tamping iron into a missile. (From the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus (Image laterally reversed to show the features in the correct position since daguerreotype is a mirror image)
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It was Spurlock who told the Wilguses that the man in their daguerreotype might be Gage. After Beverly finished her online research, she and Jack concluded that the man probably was. She e-mailed a scan of the photograph to the Warren museum. Eventually it reached Jack Eckert, the public-services librarian at Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine. “Such a ‘wow’ moment,” Eckert recalls. It had to be Gage, he determined. How many mid-19th-century men with a mangled eye and scarred forehead had their portrait taken holding a metal tool? A tool with an inscription on it?

The Wilguses had never noticed the inscription; after all, the daguerreotype measures only 2.75 inches by 3.25 inches. But a few days after receiving Spurlock’s tip, Jack, a retired photography professor, was focusing a camera to take a picture of his photograph. “There’s writing on that rod!” Jack said. He couldn’t read it all, but part of it seemed to say, “through the head of Mr. Phi...”

In March 2009, Jack and Beverly went to Harvard to compare their picture with Gage’s mask and the tamping iron, which had been inscribed in Gage’s lifetime: “This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage,” it reads, misspelling the name.

Harvard has not officially declared that the daguerreotype is of Gage, but Macmillan, whom the Wilguses contacted next, is quite certain. He has also learned of another photograph, he says, kept by a descendant of Gage’s.

As for Spurlock, when he got word that his hunch was apparently correct, “I threw open the hallway door and told my wife, ‘I played a part in a historical discovery!’ ”

Steve Twomey is based in New Jersey. He wrote about map and document thieves for the April 2008 issue of Smithsonian.


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