Neurology is one of the most fascinating branches of science. The human brain and its complexity have always been a topic among thinkers. But, it took a considerable amount of time to transform these random thoughts into a fully developed scientific field. This was made possible with the help of modern medicine and technological advancement in the field. There are quite a few names in the list of pioneers of neurology. However, this man stands apart as having nothing to do with science or technology and is still discussed in every introductory neuroscience textbook on the face of Earth- Phineas Gage. What made this ordinary working-class man be one of the most studied individuals in the history of medicine?
Phineas Gage was working on a construction site with his fellow workers as it happened. On September 13, 1848, an explosive detonated accidentally and an iron rod pierced through his skull. The 4 feet, 13-pound iron rod entered through his left cheek, passed through his brain, and got out shattering his skull. And to make things worse, the 25-year-old Phineas Gage was completely conscious. He was rushed to Dr. Harlow, who was amazed to see him still alive. Remember, the medical field wasn’t as advanced in the 80s. Phineas still managed to come out through this dark phase in one piece. It only took him 2 months to get discharged from the hospitals and the only apparent difference was the loss of vision of his left eye. But, having survived the accident wasn’t the reason he was later nominated to be a study subject in hundreds of research projects. It was what changed after the accident.
At the time, the medical professionals hardly had any idea about the inner workings of the brain and they weren’t sure what might have happened to Phineas. But people who knew Phineas both before and after the accident assured that he was a changed man. Somehow, his personality changed. Historical documents contain a lot of testimonials from his relatives and colleagues to confirm the point. According to most, Phineas became a ‘jerk’ after the accident. Some were of the opinion that he became a monster- an animal’s mind in a man’s body. But some other testimonials describe Phineas as more entertaining, lacking social inhibitions and more ‘fun’ in contrast with some other’s pointing out his psychopathic features. Whatever the case, the one thing that all these statements had in common was that he changed after the accident. So, does that mean our personality resides in our brain?
A little later, researchers found that it was his prefrontal cortex that got damaged by the iron rod. Dr. Harlow, the one who treated him was the first to publish a research article about the incident. However, it was in the 1950s, after Harvard professor, Henry J Bigalow wrote a research paper on him, that he became the centre of attraction.
Sadly, Phineas passed away in 1860, just after a decade of his accident on account of seizures. But his skull is still preserved in the Harvard’s Warren anatomical museum. It is said that Phineas used to go on college trips with the iron rode that passed through his brain and tell stories about the incident. However, Phineas donated the iron rode to the museum before he died but retracted it after a while. It was reinstated a while after his death. Both his skull and the iron rod remain at the museum fascinating the eyes of every student who cares to look.
By 1940, his brain was digitally mapped and diagrammed using advanced technology. Researchers are now aware of exactly which connections were severed as a result of his accident, which proved to be vital in understanding more about the human brain. Phineas Gage, 160 years after his death, is still helping us dig deeper into the human brain. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say that neurology as we know it today wouldn’t have got this far without Phineas Gage and his iron rode.