Newly discovered daguerreotype of man who had iron rod pierce his skull in 1848


Jack and Beverly Wilgus have had this daguerreotype for 30 years. They assumed it was a whaler holding the harpoon that blinded him. But someone who saw the image recently suggested it was Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who survived an iron rod piercing through his skull in 1848. Gage's resulting personality change led to a new understanding of neurology.

This is the only known image of Gage.

[Phineas] Gage was the 25-year-old foreman of a construction gang on Sept. 13, 1848, preparing a railroad bed outside Cavendish, Vt. As usual, he was using a pointed iron rod -- 3 feet, 7 inches long and 13 1/4 pounds -- to tamp gunpowder and sand into a hole drilled in the rock. But on that day, the mixture exploded, sending the rod through his left cheek and out through the top of his head.

It was successfully removed and, to the surprise of physicians, Gage lived 11 more years, dying after a series of increasingly violent convulsions. His story is a showpiece in neurology texts and folklore because of his survival and the abrupt changes in his personality.

A piercing image of Phineas Gage


  1. Oh cool! I know I have read a little bit about Mr. Gage, probably in one of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ books, like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.” Dr. Sacks’ books are a good read, imho, if you are into the brain, senses, and behavior.

  2. Figures they’d slap a copyright label right across the picture. Heaven forbid that an image of a man who died in 1860 would be in the public domain.

  3. @2, yeah that is pretty slimy. It amazes me how people can steal history from the masses and charge a buck for it.

  4. I work at the Countway Medical Library at Harvard, and I can say with certainty that this is a pic of Phineas Gage. You see, we have both his skull and the iron bar on display (5th Floor).

    You may note the inscriptions on the pry bar. Gage kept it as a memento, and in later years used it as a prop when he exhibited himself for money.

    Mr. Gage and his bar are part of a display that is not open to the general public, but we might let you see it if you ask nicely.

  5. The book that mentions him is not by Oliver Sacks; it’s one by Antonio Damasio, a portuguese neuroscientist. The book is called Descartes’ Error.

  6. Takuan, certainly the elites didn’t build Thebes of the Seven Gates?

    Anonymous @8, you remind me of a saying of Thomas Browne’s, from the Hydriotaphia: “But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?”

  7. Okay technically its a crappy website watermark, not a copyright…. but yes in the text he does claim copyright to the image… my guess is such a claim would never hold up, since he neither took the photograph nor, most likely, could prove an inherited copyright from the original photographer… (daguerreotyper?)

    It’s worth noting the LA Times reprinted it with no such copyright notice… so if you want to run off thousands of copies of this Gage pic, be sure to take it from the LA Times and then blame them.

  8. They stitched him up pretty well didn’t they? I don’t see any scar at all on the left side of his face where the bar entered. I see a slight scar on his forehead and his hair may be hiding some damage but it doesn’t look like the area of exit from the images I’ve seen on the wikipedia page. Maybe it’s not Mr. Gage at all but someone who suffered a similar injury holding the infamous bar?

  9. Try covering alternate eyes (in the photo, not yours) – peaceful, psycho, peaceful, psycho, peaceful, psycho…

  10. I have always used Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story about Brain Science by John Fleischman to help teach middle school students about reading non-fiction texts. The story is just icky enough and fascinating to them. I’ll add this picture (via the LA Times) to add to the verisimilitude.

  11. The ghost of Phineas Gage appears as a character in the book Alive in Necropolis by Doug Dorst. Interesting read.

  12. I remember the story well from 2nd year neuro-anatomy lectures – Phineas Gage is a staple of neuro-anatomy, psychology, neurology and neurosurgery lectures in medical schools around the world.

    It’s nice to put a put a face to the story, but I wonder how much it’ll cost to add his picture to your slides for a lecture? :-(

  13. Eye thing aside, Phineas Gage was totally hot.

    Yeah, KSharpe, if it happened today he could have
    been one of those eye patch guys in the soaps.

  14. …and this, folks, are what historians are for.

    In case anyone of you want to ask me what, exactly, I’m going to do with an advanced degree in history. Just like everyone else.

  15. “do the masses really own history? I don’t see them doing any of the work.”

    For once, I agree with Takuan. Historians don’t own the history, we just own the words that explain our arguments about it. And yeah, we should own that.

    As far as artifacts, this is a bit more involved and complicated.

    Most are owned by “the state” and that is supposedly owned by “the masses.” Although you usually have to pay to see an exhibit, and when you see a museum exhibit you are seeing about .000001% of the actual collection.

    It bothers me that museum collections ARE NOT OPEN to regular folks. Only academics can get in to see collection storage; and only with lots of persuading, begging, name dropping, and appointment making. Archives are the same way. Sometimes, they just plain won’t let you look at stuff. They just say NO. We put millions/billions of tax money into conserving these artifacts, and then no one but staff gets to see them.

    This issue is unknown to the public cause they are uneducated about it, or they don’t care- so I guess I shouldn’t either. But I see it as a lo-tech version of freedom of information. ANYONE should be able to view anything. At any time.

    History belongs to all of us.

  16. Personality change in this case cannot actually be reasonably argued, as there is no first-hand evidence of his pre-injury temperament. Nevertheless, I’m sure his personality did change — nearly dying and major disability can have that effect!

  17. I believe that Gage’s story is told in Richard Restak’s “The Brain” and is dramatized in the companion PBS series, circa 1984.

    The rod damaged Gage’s middle frontal cortex (behind the prefrontal cortex & in front of the primary motor cortex). In an oversimplified model of brain function, this area mediates the ideas generated in the prefrontal zone and acted out by the motor zone. Damage to this zone left Gage uninhibited.


  18. I believe the scan of the photo is copyrighted. Someone else can create a scan of the original daguerreotype, however (if you persuade the holder of the artifact).

  19. On the topic of historic photographs, I highly recommend reading the editorial “Goodbye to All That” from American Heritage magazine, May 2001, p. 5, about the purchase by Bill Gates’ company Corbis of the Bettmann Archive.

  20. “It was successfully removed…” is the start of the second paragraph of this blog post. What was successfully removed? There was nothing to remove. Poor old Phineas has been haunted by sloppy retellings of his story and this webpage continues that unfortunate 161-year tradition.

  21. First saw ‘story’ in true magazine, then saw it was true from article in a med book called, The
    Human Body by logan clendening ( 1927 ) Yikes.

  22. Go Phineas! I am a resident of Cavendish, VT and there is a lovely monument to honor Mr. Gage in front of the town offices. Perhaps now they can incorporate his photo on it.

  23. 1. There is no question this is Gage. I’m the one who first posed the possibility to the owners and although I didn’t want to jump in with both feet, I was pretty sure. The thought process went like this: “That is definitely not a harpoon, but it does look like an iron tamping rod. Like the one that Phineas Gage…wait…the wound is in just the right place, but on the wrong side. Wait, it’s a dagurreotype, therefore a mirror image. But there are no known images of him. Maybe?”

    2. Yes, he was a handsome devil, wasn’t he? If you hold a mirror to his face along the nose, you’ll see he’s the spitting image of Jeffrey Hunter. A snappy dresser, too. Look at the vest.

    3. Of course the photo should belong to those who possess it. Who do you think cared for it and kept it safe all these years? Come on. Do you know how much money museums make every year from selling rights to “their” images? Be fair.

  24. Researchers such as Malcolm Macmillan and I hope readers can contribute to a fuller picture of Phineas Gage by helping with topics such as those listed below. Many are not on Gage directly, but rather people or places related to him. FOR MORE INFORMATION including how these relate to Phineas, please visit .

    Information might be in letters and diaries; medical and business records; town, police and court files; local newspapers; or in the archives of churches, hospitals and literary, professional, historical and genealogical societies. We especially hope organizations will search their one-of-a-kind materials not published in book form.

    IN CHILE (1852-60): We want to know about Drs. William and Henry Trevitt, Masonic lodges, Methodist churches, and English-language newspapers, schools and businesses. Do you know anyone who can help with such things?

    IN NEW ENGLAND (1848-54): Can you find newspaper or diary accounts of Phineas’ accident, of his travels exhibiting himself and his “iron,” or of his reported preaching at Methodist revivals in Sterling, Mass.? In Concord, NH records of the Abbot-Downing coachworks could identify “three enterprising New Englanders” who may have set up the coach line for which Phineas drove in Chile; in Hanover you might discover Phineas’ duties at Currier’s Inn, or a Dartmouth professor who met him; and somewhere in Wilton may be the papers of Henry Trevitt.

    IN CALIFORNIA (1860- ): Where is the missing undertaker’s ledger showing where Gage died? What can you discover about Dr. William Jackson Wentworth (Alameda Co.) or the papers of Joseph Stalder (d.1931)? Are you descended from Phineas’s nieces/nephew Hannah, Delia, Mary, Alice, or Frank B.Shattuck? Can we learn more about Frank at the School for the Deaf?

    IN OHIO (1860- ): Can you find anything about Henry Trevitt’s time at Starling Medical College in Columbus, Prof. J.W. Hamilton, or William Trevitt’s papers?

    ANYWHERE: If you are related to the Cowdrey, Davis, Ames, or Kimball families, are you also related to Phineas’ doctor, John Martyn Harlow? Do you know of ship passenger lists (Boston, New York, Chile, Panama, S.F.) that might show Gage family movements? Do you have Gold Rush ancestors who stopped in Valparaiso, Chile? And of course, letters mentioning Gage could have gone anywhere.

    There are more clues in Stillwater and Northfield, MN; Santa Clara, San Rafael, and S.F., CA; Cavendish, Castleton, Woodstock, and Burlington, VT; Lebanon and Enfield, NH; Albany, NY, Buda, IL, the National Library of Medicine, and other places. At are details on how you can help by following such clues. Your help or inquiries to will be very much appreciated.

    We would be pleased to assist teachers (in New England, S.F., even Chile?) in creating a class project involving students’ search for family papers or local lore about Gage.

    Matthew L. Lena (Boston, Mass.)

  25. Looking at the picture of Felippe Massa and the surgical report released there are some similiraties with Gage.It will be important to receive information on the longterm neuropsychological behaviour of this F1 racing pilot. Hope we will have more respect.

  26. May be this is no more the only known image of Gage: I think I have discovered another portrait of Phineas Gage!
    It’s on you to decide if the picture on this site may be attributed to the younger Phineas Gage. Please consult and see some comparison studies and the opinions of some of the leading experts on Phineas Gage.

Comments are closed.