BOSTON — There it sat, in all its dreadful glory.
The skull, one of the most famous in the world, was there in the case—with two huge chunks of bone removed—sitting alongside a more than three-foot-long, iron rod.
Ah, yes. The legendary case holding the cranium of Phineas Gage.
There I stood alone on the fifth floor of Harvard Medical School’s Warren Anatomical Museum. Sure, I could hear voices of others behind thick wooden doors. But as for true company, the only human remains in sight were me, and the hollowed head of Mr. Gage himself. I tried to take myself back—imagining what it must have been like on Sept. 13, 1848.
On this day, Gage, a New Hampshire native, was blasting rock for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad in Vermont: boring a hole into the rock, filling it with blasting powder and adding a fuse. It was then covered with dirt or clay and pounded into the space with a tool called a tamping iron—a three-and-a-half-foot long iron rod.
As the story goes, Gage turned to say something to his fellow workers, which put his face in front of the blast hole. The tamping iron then sparked on the rock, causing it to explode.
And Gage’s life—and most importantly, his skull—would never be the same.
The 13-pound rod shot up into his face, point-first, entering at the left lower jaw and continuing through his cheek. It passed his left eye, shot the left side of his brain and exited the top of his head, passing through the frontal lobe.
It landed nearly 80 feet away.
Gage landed on his back, and according to some reports, went into convulsions. But after a few minutes, not only was he still alive, he sat up and began to speak. He even walked—with some assistance—back to a cart that took him to a local doctor who cleaned and treated his wounds.
The weeks that followed were uneven. Gage faded in and out of consciousness. Some days he remembered family members and friends while on others, he had no recollection of who they were. Eventually losing sight in his left eye, Gage continued on the road to recovery. Against all odds, he improved, and after a month, he was walking.
Ten weeks later, he moved back to his hometown with his parents, helping them with some light work on their farm. And while some noted a change in personality, as well as some memory loss, Gage seemed to be recovering.
After four years, he was physically well, though he couldn’t get his railroad job back. Instead, he started making appearances with the Barnum American Museum in New York City, telling his story to earn a living. He then went to work for a stable and coach service in Hanover, New Hampshire.
And while he seemed to be getting his life back on track, those close to him knew he wasn’t the same man. Personality-wise, he’d gone from courteous to selfish, and he’d transformed from someone with an acute business sense to someone who had no sense of how to handle money. He “was no longer Gage,” his friends would say.
However, he was alive.
In 1852, he was invited to Chile to do similar stable and coachwork. Here he stayed for seven years before falling ill and returning home. But this time, he never got better.
He died in 1860 at the age of 36—incredibly, almost 12 years after being impaled with the rod.
Sometime during his recovery, he donated the iron rod to the Harvard Medical School. After his death, his skull was donated, too. And there they were, right in front of me. Anyone can pay Phineas Gage’s skull and the impalement rod a visit—they’re housed in the Harvard museum, which is a part of the medical school.
And while Harvard Medical School is full of marvels and curious exhibits, nothing tops the man who took an iron spike through the head and lived to tell the tale.
By Ryan Clark, contributor for Ripleys.com