CAVENDISH-In 1848, Phineas Gage, a resident of Cavendish Village near Ludlow, made medical history. Within a few days, Gage went from being a promising railroad construction foreman to the focus of attention in the medical world. Now, two photographs, dating to the early 1850s, have been found; they are the first to show the face of the famous Vermonter-America's most talked about medical oddity of the pre-Civil War era.
The recently uncovered daguerreotypes show Phineas Gage as he looked shortly after the construction accident that changed his life until his death in 1860.
The unique daguerreotypes are the only known surviving image of the famous man other than a plaster death mask. The first image was uncovered a few years ago by a New Jersey couple; it was brought to the attention of the Harvard University Center for the History of Medicine and Smithsonian Institution only in late 2009.
As a respected constructed foreman, the 25-year-old Gage worked up and down the lines of the Rutland & Burlington Railroad-from south of Rutland and Ludlow, north to Middlebury and Burlington, and beyond. Always popular with the local girls, Gage cut a handsome profile in the bustling village of Cavendish.
But on Sept. 13, 1848, a freakish event would forever alter Phineas Gage-for the worse.
On that late summer day, Gage's crew was blasting rock to make way for a new rail cut. The athletic foreman used a harpoon-like iron rod, 43 inches long by 1.25 inches wide, to tamp explosive powder into a pre-drilled hole in the rock.
It's unclear what caused the initial spark that set off a premature explosion detonating the powder. The tamping rod, propelled at a speed more than 120 miles per hour, rocketed out of the hole; it ripped through Gage's skull and brain-via the lower left cheek, penetrating the left eye-and then exited.
The iron missile came to rest on the ground a few yards away from the dazed man. Remaining conscious, Gage alerted his crew; several of the men walked alongside the ambulating foreman to a nearby doctor.
"Here's business enough for you," Gage matter-of-factly told the village doctor. Business enough for generations of medical students to ponder. The examining physician was both horrified and astounded-here was a miracle that staggered the scientific mind; the young man had survived the trauma of a missile's high velocity transit through flesh, brain, and bone.
Within a few days, while under the watchful eye of John Martyn Harlow, M.D., it was apparent that Gage was not the man friends and co-workers knew so well. Instead, his personality had changed for the worst. No longer reliable, focused, and polite-spoken, the young foreman became listless and foulmouthed. He uttered "the grossest profanity", according to Dr. Harlow.
The R&B Railroad soon dismissed Gage and his wandering, wicked ways throughout the Americas became the stories of legend. To earn a modest income, the unemployable Gage worked as a sideshow freak making public appearances in New England and elsewhere. He died in San Francisco in 1860 after being taken by a violent series of seizures.
Gage was the focus of study for many neuroscience researchers. Thus, the New Englander became "the most famous patient in the annals of neuroscience...," according to Steve Twomey, who wrote about Gage in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine. "His case was the first to suggest a link between brain trauma and personality change." After his death, Gage's skull and a death mask were donated to Harvard where researchers still examine them.
Jack and Beverly Wilgus, the couple that had acquired the first Gage daguerreotype, alerted historians to the strange photo which shows a one-eyed man holding an inscribed iron rod. At first the Wilgus' thought the man in the photograph was a harpoonist, however, after several trained eyes examined the image and concluded the mystery man was Gage.
A descendant of Phineas Gage owns the second daguerreotype of the famous medical patient. After the Wilgus' announced their discovery in January, the Gage family descendant decided to go public with the second image.
Special thanks to the Smithsonian and Harvard Center for the History of Medicine for assistance in preparing this article.