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Daguerreian Discovery: The Man with an Iron Bar through his Skull

15 September 2009

Gage with the rod that passed
through his skull
(Image owned by Jack and
Beverly Wilgus)

A reconstruction of Gage's accident
Featured in the current Daguerreian Society Newsletter is an outstanding recent discovery - a daguerreotype portrait of the 19th century neurological wonder, Phineas Gage. Gage was working as railroad construction foreman when on Sept. 18, 1848 an explosion blasted a three-foot iron tamping rod entirely through his skull and out the top of his head, taking pieces of his brain and skull along with it. A period medical wonder, Gage survived despite his injuries and lived for another twelve years. Reported changes in his personality after the accident became the focus of a medical debate which continues to this day. In the newly-found daguerreotype Gage is shown proudly posed with the large iron bar which forever changed his life, and, on some accounts, radically altered his personality.

According to the article, no photographs of Gage were previously known to exist, and the daguerreotype was identified as Gage through a series of lucky coincidences and research which it follows in detail. Both a life cast of Gage's head and the fateful tamping bar itself had been preserved in the Warren Anatomical Museum of Harvard Medical School. Gage's injuries as seen in the life cast were seen to match scars partially visible on the daguerreotype. Even more convincingly, the iron bar had been engraved during Gage's lifetime with an inscription that is still partially visible as he holds it for his daguerreian portrait.

If you are not a Daguerreian Society member or subscriber to their Newsletter, the issue containing the story of this image is available online here in PDF format. (DS Newsletter 2009, Issue 3 -- image illustrated on cover; article begins on page 6.)

Jack and Beverly Wilgus, the owners of Gage's daguerreotype and those responsible for much of the research that led to the uncovering of its story, also relate Gage's saga on their Meet Phineas Gage website.

A detailed treatment of Gage with additional documentation and medical imagery is also found in Wikipedia's Phineas Gage article.


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