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
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drink
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas