You ever hear the expression, “I need that like a hole in the head”?
Though we can’t say for sure that the story of Phineas Gage inspired this cliche, it’d be safe to say he understands the concept better than anyone in history.
In the mid-1800s, Gage suffered an incredible accident; he was impaled through the head with a 13-pound spike.
Amazingly, he survived. But believe it or not, walking off cranial impalement isn’t the craziest part of this story.
Neuroscientists study Gage’s unique case to this day. Let’s find out why.
1. The Curious Case Of Phineas Gage
Gage was a railroad worker in Vermont in the mid-1800s. He was on a blasting team, the job of which is to blow up rocks so that the railroad company can lay flat track. To do this, someone like Gage would bore a hole, stuff explosives into it, and pack it with a long metal rod called a tamping iron. It’s all in the diagram above.
We don’t know much about Gage’s personality before the accident, except that he was regarded by his friends and colleagues as smart, energetic and even-tempered.
On September 13, 1948, that all changed.
2. The Accident
Around 4:30 that afternoon, Gage was tamping an explosive. He looked over his shoulder, unknowingly bringing his head perfectly flush with the blasting hole.
The tamping iron must have sparked against the rock in the hole, because it lit the explosive and shot the rod straight up through Gage’s head.
His co-workers rightly thought he was dead when he fell over and started convulsing with a huge metal rod lodged in his skull.
But then something absolutely batsh** happened.
3. He Walked It Off Like A Boss
Gage just got up and walked it right the eff off. He was speaking within minutes, and even sat up during a bumpy cart-ride a mile back into town. No word on whether he walked away from the scene in slow motion wearing sunglasses as explosions went off around him.
Once in town, he reportedly sat patiently outside the office of the local doctor for half an hour. You know, with a gaping wound in his head.
As physician Edward Williams approached his office, Gage spotted him and said, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.”
4. The Gory Details
Gage was treated both by Williams and a doctor named J.M. Harlow over the next few days. He was lucid, and able to clearly explain what had happened to him, even though the doctors refused to believe him at first.
At one point, Gage paused his story to stand up and throw up, at which point, according to Williams, “about half a teacupful of the brain [through the exit hole at the top of the skull], fell upon the floor.”