How a Harvard Museum Acquired Phineas Gage’s Skull

Phineas Gage’s traumatic brain injury (1848) made him famous in the psychology and neuroscience fields.

After his death (1860), Gage was buried in San Francisco’s Lone Mountain Cemetery.

Dr. Harlow, the doctor who treated Phineas Gage's brain injury
Dr. John M. Harlow

In 1866, Dr. Harlow, who treated Phineas after his traumatic brain injury wrote to Mrs. Gage, Phineas’s mother, inquiring about his former patient.

One thing led to another and during the following year, David Shattuck, Mrs. Gage’s son-in-law, along with two physicians (past city mayors), dug Phineas up.

 

 

Note: The image above, left is not David Shattuck. Photographs/ daguerreotypes could be found of David or his wife Pheobe. In the interest of storytelling, public domain images are used as representations.

David Shattuck was the husband of Phoebe Gage, Phineas’s younger sister. | The following short story is an excerpt from the novella Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years.


Lone Mountain Cemetery, San Francisco 1867 

On a misty morning in November, I found myself in the Lone Mountain Cemetery looking down at my brother-in-law’s tombstone. Doctor Coon and Doctor J.B.D. Stillman stood at my side, each with a shovel in hand.

Guards stood at the closed entrance gates affording us privacy.

Coats came off as digging commenced. At first, I felt that I was committing an unforgivable sin. But as my back strained and my hands developed blisters, those feelings subsided, until my shovel made contact with something solid.

The other two paused, nodding to one another, then resumed. Once space was clear, the two doctors were about to lift the coffin lid when I interrupted. “Wait! Gentlemen, please bear with my squeamishness. Before you open it, would you prepare me for what I am about to see?”

Doctor Coon looked uncomfortable. He glanced at Doctor Stillman who replied, “Why, David, you need not see anything.”

“No,” I disagreed firmly. “I promised my wife that I would follow it through to the end.”

“She never needs to know,” Doctor Coon replied softly.

“I’ll know. Please, just tell me.”

“Very well,” the man sighed as he wiped his hands on his vest, “By now, all of the body fluids will have dissipated. The clothing will be intact. Likely, dry skin will still cover the skeletal remains. Hair will be present.” Coon paused to see how I was taking it. “Shall I describe what we’ll do next and the skull removal process?”

Squeezing my eyes shut, I nodded.

“Once the lid is off, the first thing I will do is hand you the iron bar. Next, I will test the skull to see if it separates from the spine. If not, Doctor Stillman has tools for that. I will remove any organic matter that freely separates. Doctor Stillman will take the skull and place it inside the box.” Coon paused, waiting for my response.

“Understood. Proceed,” I said gravely.

It took all three of us climbing inside the hole to pry the lid up and place it off to the side. I was surprised to see Phineas’s body exactly as Doctor Coon described.

Mummified-looking remains wore Phin’s clothes. But it no longer looked like the man I remembered. When I hopped out of the hole, Doctor Coon handed up the bar. It was ice-cold to the touch, heavier than I remembered.

Not wishing to watch more of the proceedings, I held it up, running a finger over the words etched on its surface.

This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, Sept. 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury & deposited this bar in the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University. Phinehas P. Gage Lebanon Grafton Cy N-H Jan 6, 1850

I remembered Phin’s story about the engraver he hired to do the work, misspelling his name. I could hear Phineas saying, ‘When mistakes are made, it’s the good man who doesn’t get angry, but figures out how to move forward from there.’

I chose to focus on memories rather than listen to the doctors going on about their ghoulish activity.

“Mission accomplished,” Doctor Stillman proclaimed loudly, breaking into my thoughts. He and Doctor Coon replaced the coffin lid. “Let’s get that hole filled.”

When we finished, Doctor Stillman offered to take the skull with him to process it for travel.

I promised myself at that moment, that ‘the skull’ would remain inside its box until it was delivered to Doctor Harlow. I didn’t care to, ever, look at it, or have any member of my family see it.

Without my noticing, a murky fog had rolled in. The city beyond the cemetery walls had been engulfed in a chilly, dull, gray blankness of a November day. Seagulls could be heard high above in the blue sky that must be up there. Our boot steps sounded muffled.

Doctor Stillman cradled the box in front of him like a wise man on his way to deliver a gift to the baby Jesus. Doctor Coon carried shovels and a bag of tools. I kept pace with the others, Phineas’s bar grew heavier every minute.

A raven landed on a tombstone nearby. It shrieked, raising its wings like it expected a token in exchange for letting us pass.

When the guards opened the gates, the metal hinges let loose a high-pitched protest. I wondered if the flaming gates of hell would sound that way if this deed took me to that entrance.

Worse yet, would Phoebe ever forgive me for this?

~ End ~

Note: The dialog is fictionalized, but the people, dates, inscription, activities, and results are factual.

If you liked this story, you may also like Quaker Ladies Rubble, about the girl Phineas left behind.

Another interesting tale is San Francisco’s grave removals in the 1930s – 1940s. From the neck down, Phineas’s final resting place is in a mass grave about forty miles south of the city.

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Intimacy with Personal Monsters & Un-Monsters

A Monstrous Tree?

Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.

Photo Credit: Mark Crawly, flickr

As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.

For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.

Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)

historic Spanish sea monster
Historic Spanish sea monster

Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.

Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing

are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.

chaos and the sun god
Chaos and the sun god

Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.

Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.

With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.

Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.

With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.

Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.

istoric depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstien
A historic depiction of body parts and monster assembly in Frankenstein

 

Frankenstein

contemporary portrayal of Frankenstein monster running through the woods

  • Parental rejection
  • Grief & loss from children dying (bringing the dead back to life)
  • Love outside of acceptable social norms
  • Weariness of industrial age science

 

The Shape of Water creature

  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Courage to defy authority
  • Courage to fight for justice
  • Love outside social norms

 

 

Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book cover art
Haylee and the Travelers Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler book covers

 

Haylee in the Traveler’s Stone & the Last Traveler

  • Power of sexual attraction
  • Responsibility for dependents
  • Reconciliation of love outside expectations
  • Acceptance that all wrongs can’t be repaired

 

a lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
A lightning strike causes Adeline to stop aging in Age of Adeline
contemporary portrayal of a vampire - exploration of immortality
Contemporary portrayal of a vampire – exploration of immortality

Age of Adeline & Vampires

  • Power of sexual attraction/ youth
  • Societal parasite
  • Fear of death
  • Immortality exploration

 

 

P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI
P.T. Barnum style poster of Phineas Gage after his TBI

Phineas Gage

  • Physical deformity and social rejection
  • Loss of expectations for a young life (caused by a traumatic brain injury)
  • Anger from a detrimental, permanent change of circumstances
  • Family response to long-term care requirements
  • Legendary, iconic brain science/psychology touchstone

 

Chinese Railroad Workers’ Jaingshi

  • Conquering nature
  • Facing death, injury & disfigurement
  • Removed from and longing for culture and familiar
  • Racism and social ostracization
  • Fear of being lost & forgotten
graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters
Graffiti in the Donner Summit train tunnels depicts contemporary monsters

Contemporary Train Tunnel Graffiti

Colorful monsters and beasties painted on snowshed walls at Donner Summit tell their own stories.

  • Injustice
  • Disenfranchised finding a voice
  • Addiction
  • Fear of death
  • Self-expression
  • Seizing power
  • Claiming a space in place
  • Fear of being lost and forgotten

 

Un monster collage
Un-monster collage

Lisa’s Un-Monsters

The collage reflects the ugliness and beauty of struggles with self-criticism. Matching an image to feelings allows expression of concepts that seem impossible to say out loud.

  • Unconscious, underwater, unseen, unknown, unheard
  • Exposed
  • Choking with self-doubt

 

a cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit
A cairn built on top of the center shaft cap for tunnel #6 at Donner Summit

Like ice sculptures, sand castles, and graffiti, monster varieties come and go. They change with what we are thinking about at a particular moment in time, and they allow us to put faces on our fears.

 

Resources:

KQED – Why Don’t Murals Get Covered by Graffiti in the Mission? – “…you first need to know that there are three groups: graffiti writers, street artists and muralists.”

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Phineas Gage – Brain Science Touchstone & Pop Culture Icon

Surviving a freak accident—  that was how Phineas Gage became famous. If given a choice, he’d probably prefer to be remembered as someone who rose above challenges, lived in a foreign country, and was considered the ‘fun uncle’ by his nieces and nephews.

Regardless of its moral value, Gage’s traumatic brain injury, recorded and publicized by his treating physician (Dr. Harlow), made Phineas a touchstone for the fields of brain science, neurology, and psychology.

“In the 19th century, Gage’s survival seemed miraculous. Fascination with his plight encouraged scientific research into the brain, and the continuing research into Gage’s condition is proof that this same curiosity is still alive today.” — case study, BigPictureEducation.com

Gage frequently appears in contemporary media.

Hell on Wheels (AMC, 2014) producers tipped a hat to Phineas when Doctor Major Augustus Bendix (Leon Ingulsrud), mentions him while reading a phrenology book (skull bumps relating to character traits).

Setting the tone for Elam’s (Common) backstory (Bear Man episode). The railroad worker is ‘not himself’ after a bear attack that punctures his skull.

In the Pollywog episode of Stranger Things2 (Netflix, 2016), science teacher Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) lectures his middle school class about the American crowbar case. “Phineas, miraculously, survived….but his injury resulted in a complete change to his personality.”

Later, the audience learns that Will Byers, (Noah Schnapp) returned from the Upside Down, is no longer the sweet boy he was before his mysterious mishap.

In the January 2018 issue of National Geographic,  The Science of Good and Evil analyzes a connection between violence and empathy. In the article, a full page photo of Phineas, holding his tamping iron, is captioned with, “When he recovered, he was no longer friendly and respectful; he was uncaring and indifferent.”

In pop culture, Phineas Gage symbolizes traumatic brain injury, emotional disturbance, and personality disorders.

Although Dr. Harlow included personality changes in his notes immediately following the accident, he lost contact with Gage, never performing follow-up examinations.

While it is probably true that Phineas was altered after his accident, the traits with which he is associated may not be accurate.

In his award-winning book, An Odd Kind of Fame, author Malcolm Macmillian, the world’s Gage authority, subscribes to a social recovery hypothesis. He believes that Phineas’s work as a Concord coach driver demonstrates adaptations and coping skills that he developed.

For almost twelve years after the accident, Phineas managed to make his way in the word. We may never have a clear picture of how he lived his life during that time.

What we do know is that Phineas’s place in history, as an icon for brain injury and behavior change, is fixed.

_____

For more interesting brain/behavior stories, check out NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast with Shankar Vedantam.

Hidden Brain reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships.

 

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Resources:

Fiction book based on known facts about Phineas Gage and what his life might have been like after his terrible railroad accident.
Phases of Gage: After the Accident Years

Articles

Art & Popular Culture – Phineas Gage

How the Story of Phineas Gage ties into Stranger Things2 – Refinery29.com

Ice Pick Cure – History of Lobotomy – WIRED

Neurophilosophy: the incredible case of Phineas Gage – ScienceBlogs.com

Phineas Gage books, research notes, and videos

Popular Culture & Psychology…Not Such Strange Bedfellows – Psychology Today

Popular Culture Meets Psychology – Psychology Today

The extraordinary life of Phineas Gage – The Naked Scientists

Organization

SSPC
The Society for the Study of Psychiatry and Culture (SSPC) is a nonprofit, interdisciplinary organization devoted to furthering research, clinical care and education in cultural aspects of mental health and illness.

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