Is that you, Phineas?

The BPS Research Digest has the surprising news that a photo of Phineas Gage has been discovered. He became one of the most famous case studies in neuroscience when he had a large iron rod blown through his frontal lobes in in 1848.

He survived but his frontal lobe damage meant “Gage was no longer Gage”, at least according to his attending doctor, giving us some of the first clues that damage to specific brain areas could cause changes in personality.

The photo was apparently discovered by two photo collectors who went to great lengths to verify it was indeed Gage.

The photo may well show Gage in his later years as he toured the country with PT Barnum’s circus appeared at PT Barnum’s New York museum as one of the star attractions, always with the tamping iron on hand to amaze the crowds.

In the tradition of media circuses, the collectors have taken the long out-of-copyright photo, put a dirty great copyright sign across the front and are charging ‘usage fees’ for the undefaced version.

Phineas Gage may be dead, but the spirit of Barnum, it seems, lives on.

UPDATE: The LA Times has a short article and an undefaced version of the photo online.

Link to BPSRD on the photo.
Link to the ‘Meet Phineas Gage’ website with defaced photo.

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 17, 2009 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    Gage wasn’t in the circus. He worked at Barnum’s museum in New York. The story got warped because people hear “Barnum” and think circus.

    http://deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/Pgstory.php

  2. Posted July 17, 2009 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for that. Now corrected.

  3. airship1951
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m 99.5% positive I saw this photo 20-30 years ago, perhaps in the book or magazine article where I first heard about this case. Since he was a Barnum exhibit, I think it’s probable that old P.T. sold souvenir photos of him at the museum. In that case, there would still be thousands of these things in trunks and attics.

  4. Posted July 28, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    [apologies for the run-on text below; I can't seem to control the formatting]
    As a longtime researcher on Gage, I have some comments. I doubt strongly that this image has appeared in any publication before, and especially not if identified as Gage. It would almost certainly have turned up long before now. Nonetheless please tell me anything you can remember about where you think you saw it.
    As to Barnum distributing photos of Gage, again I’m skeptical. My colleague Macmillan ransacked the Barnum main archives as well as significant holding of Barnum material in several cities, plus all the major books on Barnum, and certainly no photo turned up. Each daguerreotype is a unique image (there’s no negative from which multiple prints can be made) so some other process such as lithography would be required for mass-production.
    As you’ll see by my “canned” plea for research help below, we have faith that more Gage material awaits us in attics, basements, and town libraries, and I suppose another Gage photo could be hiding there too. We’ll see.
    Researchers such as Malcolm Macmillan and I hope readers can contribute to a fuller picture of Phineas Gage by helping answer questions such as those below. Without your knowing, you may already have important information on Phineas, or if you are located in any of the places mentioned below, you could help look for information. Many questions relate not to Gage directly, but to people he met or places he’d been. FOR MORE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS, and how the answers might help us better understand Phineas, please visit http://www.deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/PgQuestn.php .
    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, Enfield and Wilton, NH; Albany, NY, Buda, IL, the National Library of Medicine, and other places. At http://www.deakin.edu.au/hmnbs/psychology/gagepage/PgQuestn.php are details on how you can help by following such clues. Your help or inquiries to malcolm.macmillan@unimelb.edu.au will be very much appreciated. (Please use email instead of posting a reply here.)
    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.

  5. Posted January 22, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Uncovered 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 my website and see some comparison studies and the opinions of some of the leading experts on Phineas Gage.


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