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March 30, 2018

Uncovered After 150 Years: Here Are Two Known Portraits of Phineas Gage, Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient

Phineas Gage was a railroad construction worker from New Hampshire and is known for his incredible survival after an explosives accident in 1848. The explosion propelled an iron rod (shown being held above) traveling at high speed to enter the side of Gage's face, pass behind his left eye, and then exit at the top of his skull. The iron rod was recovered some 30 yards away, smeared with blood and brain. Gage recovered from the accident and retained full possession of his reason, but his wife and other people close to him soon began to notice dramatic changes in his personality. This is possibly the first recorded case suggesting that damage to specific regions of the brain might affect personality and behavior.

Two daguerreotype portraits of Gage, identi­fied in 2009 and 2010, are the only like­nes­ses​​ of him known other than a life mask taken for Bigelow in late 1849 (and now in the Warren Museum along with Gage's skull and tamping iron).

The first shows a "disfigured yet still-handsome" Gage with left eye closed and scars clearly visible, "well dressed and confident, even proud" and holding his iron, on which portions of its inscription can be made out. (For decades the portrait's owners had believed that it depicted an injured whaler with his harpoon.)

Gage and his "constant companion"—‌his inscribed tamping iron—‌sometime after 1849, seen in the portrait (identified 2009) which "exploded the common image of Gage as a dirty, disheveled misfit".

The second, copies of which are in the possession of two branches of the Gage family, shows Gage in a somewhat different pose wearing the same waistcoat and possibly the same jacket, but with a different shirt and tie.

The second portrait of Gage identified (2010)

Authenticity was confirmed by photo-overlaying the inscription on the tamping iron, as seen in the portraits, against that on the actual tamping iron, and matching the subject's injuries to those preserved in the life mask. However, about when, where, and by whom the portraits were taken nothing is known, except that they were created no earlier than January 1850 (when the inscription was added to the tamping iron), on different occasions, and are likely by different photographers.

The portraits support other evidence that Gage's most serious mental changes were temporary. "That [Gage] was any form of vagrant following his injury is belied by these remarkable images", wrote Van Horn et al. "Although just one picture," Kean commented in reference to the first image discovered, "it exploded the common image of Gage as a dirty, disheveled misfit. This Phineas was proud, well-dressed, and disarmingly handsome."

Phineas Gage's brain was not subjected to any medical examination at that time, but seven years later his body was exhumed so his skull could be studied. Today Gage's skull, and the tamping iron that passed through it, are on display at the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston, Mass.

Frontispiece, showing multiple views of the exhumed skull, and tamping iron, of brain injury survivor Phineas Gage, 1870. (A Descriptive Catalog of the Warren Anatomical Museum)


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