A pair of photograph collectors in Maryland, USA, have uncovered what they believe to be the first and only ever photographic record of Phineas Gage – the railway worker who survived an iron tamping rod passing straight through the front of his brain, following an explosives accident in 1848.
The story of Gage and the effects of his injury on his behaviour and personality have become one of the most famous case studies in the history of psychology, inspiring plays, books and songs.
Jack and Beverly Wilgus have had the photograph – known as a daguerreotype after the Parisian photographic pioneer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre – in their possession for over thirty years, but have only just confirmed its identity.
The photograph shows Gage as a scarred, handsome, proud man, smartly dressed, with one eye closed, wielding the tamping iron that made him famous. Jack and Beverly Wilgus originally thought the image was of a whaler, but after posting the picture on Flick-r, they soon learned from expert whaling commenters that this was not the case (it was not a harpoon that he was holding), and they followed up on an alternative suggestion that perhaps the image was of Gage.
By carefully comparing the photograph with a life mask taken of Gage’s head when he was alive, and the actual tamping iron, both of which are at the Warren Anatomical Museum, the Wilgus’s confirmed that the photo is indeed of Gage. For example, an inscription on the real-life tamping iron is visible in the photograph, and scars visible on Gage’s life mask perfectly match up with the scars shown in the photograph.
The new photo is bound to intensify the debate over the effects of Gage’s injuries on his personality and behaviour. “One theory about Gage — that his personality might have changed because his appearance was made grotesque by the accident (e.g., Kotowicz, 2007) — no longer seems credible to us,” the Wilgus’s said.
[Image credit: Photograph by Jack Wilgus of a daguerreotype of Phineas Gage in the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus.]
JACK WILGUS, & BEVERLY WILGUS (2009). Face to Face with Phineas Gage. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences (In Press).