Shaun Ivory tells the story of the man who survived a pointed metal stake travelling through his skull only to become a changed man forever after…
It took an accident for him to make the medical record books, another to make him world famous – albeit posthumously. For 30 years the old photograph had been displayed in the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus in Massachusetts.
At first glance nothing remarkable – a quite handsome and well-built young man, possibly winking elaborately at the camera, with what appeared to be an iron rod or harpoon shaft held with up and across his body. A 19th century whaler perhaps; a would-be Cap’n Ahab, sure he would catch that elusive Moby Dick next time around.
It was only when the Wilguses put it on the internet that the truth began to emerge. The metal pole was nothing like a whaling harpoon, one commented. Then a Michael Purlock suggested the photograph might be that of Phineas P. Gage, holding the tamping iron that had been driven clean through his skull in 1848, and a constant, if rather gruesome, companion for the last 13 years of his life.
In 1848. the 25-year-old Phineas Gage, was supervising a work gang blasting rock while repairing a railbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad, outside the town of Cavendish, Vermont. After a hole was drilled into the rock, one of Gage’s duties was to add blasting powder, a fuse and sand, then tamp down the charge using a large iron rod.
It was about 4.30 pm on September 13, witnesses recalled, when someone called his name as he tamped, possibly distracting him. He turned as a spark from the tamping iron ignited the explosive, sending the pointed metal stake clean through his head. It entered his left cheek, just behind the eye socket, exiting through the top of his forehead before landing some 24 metres away.
The stake was 1.9 metres long and 3 centimetres in diameter at its thickest point. As the 6 kilograms of solid iron passed through Gage’s skull it destroyed one or both of his frontal lobes (medical opinion is divided here).