Revealed: picture of a Victorian medical miracle

Collectors thought their image was of a one-eyed whaler. In fact it was of a man who changed science

For 30 years, the old black-and-white portrait of a handsome man holding a metal stake had stood in anonymity in the photographic display case of Jack and Beverly Wilgus, a Massachusetts couple who had built up a small library of old daguerreotypes in their spare time.

He was well-dressed and seemed confident and self-assured, despite the loss of a left eye and a fearful scar from some unexplained accident. The Wilguses thought he could have been a 19th-century whaler, a real-life Captain Ahab carrying the harpoon and scars of a brutal encounter with a Moby-Dick. "It has had a spot in the display case with a select group of daguerreotypes," said the couple, explaining that the portrait was one of their favourite acquisitions. "During all those years it was never cycled into a storage drawer as many of the others have been.

"We gave it a name and had a story we told about it. We called it 'The Whaler' because we thought the pole he held was part of a harpoon. His left eye is closed so we invented an encounter with an angry whale that left him with one eye stitched shut."

But it has turned out that the man in the photograph was not a whaler but Phineas P Gage, a railroad worker who suffered a terrible accident with a metal stake in 1848 that left his brain permanently damaged and his changed behaviour the subject of intense scientific discussion about the physical basis of personality.

It was only when the Wilguses posted the photograph online that they realised the folly of their invented whaler story. People with a knowledge of whaling said that the metal pole had nothing to do with whale harpoons.

But someone did point out that the man looking out from the photograph might be Phineas Gage, and the metal stake could be the one that passed clean through his skull when Gage was using it as a tamper to prod sand and explosives into the cavity of a rock blocking the new Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Vermont in 1848.

It now seems almost certain that the anonymous man in the old photograph is indeed Phineas P Gage. It is the first portrait of the man who has become a medical phenomenon and one of the most famous historical figures in university courses on the brain and personality.

The story began in September 1848 when Gage was the 25-year-old foreman of a railroad blasting crew. Someone is said to have called his name as he tamped and, as he turned, a spark from the metal stake ignited the explosive, sending the pole clean through the underside of his left cheek behind his eye socket, exiting through the top of his forehead and landing some 80ft away. The stake was 3ft 7ins long and one and a quarter inches wide at its thickest point. It was nearly 14lbs of solid iron and in its journey through Gage's skull it had destroyed one or both of his frontal lobes, the parts of the outer cortex above the eyes.

Reports from the time suggest that despite the hole in his head he was able to sit upright in an ox-cart and talked animatedly while he was being taken to a nearby hotel for medical treatment by a local doctor, who noted that when Gage vomited, half a teacupful of his brains oozed from the injured skull.

Although he recovered physically, Gage underwent a dramatic personality change. Before the accident he was good-natured, courteous and quick-witted. Afterwards, reports said he became abusive, rude and incapable of making decisions.

John Harlow, a physician who had treated him after the accident, wrote: "The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual facilities and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. His speech is fitful, irrelevant, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom)."

More recently, brain scientists have suggested how the damage to Gage's frontal cortex could have brought about the personality change. It is this part of the brain that controls the instinctual desires rooted deeper, evolutionarily ancient parts of the brain, they suggested.

Yet the discovery of Gage's portrait, obviously taken in the 12 years separating the accident and his death, suggests that he may have actually overcome some of his personality problems. He had left his family and had become a long- distance stagecoach driver in Chile, which suggested that, to some extent, he was able to come to terms with his handicap.

He carried the metal stake wherever he went but his terrible accident was to plague him to the end. He started having epileptic fits and returned to San Francisco where he was nursed by his devoted mother until he suffered his last fit in 1861 and died.

Seven years later, his skull and tamping-iron were deposited in the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston where they remain to this day. But now, medical students will finally be able to put a face to a famous medical name.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future