The postmortem portraits of Phineas Gage

A new artform has emerged – the post-mortem neuroportrait. Its finest subject, Phineas Gage.

Gage was a worker extending the tracks of the great railways until he suffered the most spectacular injury. As he was setting a gunpowder charge in a rock with a large tamping iron, the powder was lit by an accidental spark. The iron was launched through his skull.

He became famous in neuroscience because he lived – rare for the time – and had psychological changes as a result of his neurological damage.

His story has been better told elsewhere but the interest has not died – studies on Gage’s injury have continued to the present day.

There is a scientific veneer, of course, but it’s clear that the fascination with the freak Phineas has its own morbid undercurrents.

Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.The image is key.

The first such picture was constructed with nothing more than pen and ink. Gage’s doctor John Harlow sketched his skull which Harlow had acquired after the patient’s death.

This Gage is forever fleshless, the iron stuck mid-flight, the shattered skull frozen as it fragments.

Harlow’s sketch is the original and the originator. The first impression of Gage’s immortal soul.

Gage rested as this rough sketch for over 100 years but he would rise again.

In 1994, a team led by neuroscientist Hannah Damasio used measurements of Gage’s skull to trace the path of the tamping iron and reconstruct its probable effect on the brain.

Gage’s disembodied skull appears as a strobe lit danse macabre, the tamping iron turned into a bolt of pure digital red and Gage’s brain, a deep shadowy grey.

It made Gage a superstar but it sealed his fate.

Every outing needed a more freaky Phineas. Like a low-rent-celebrity, every new exposure demanded something more shocking.

A 2004 study by Peter Ratiu and Ion-Florin Talos depicted Gage alongside his actual cranium – his digital skull screaming as a perfect blue iron pushed through his brain and shattered his face – the disfigurement now a gory new twist to the portrait.

In contrast, his human remains are peaceful – unmoved by the horrors inflicted on their virtual twin.

But the most recent Gage is the most otherworldly. A study by John Darrell Van Horn and colleagues examined how the path of the tamping iron would have affected the strands of white matter – the “brain’s wiring” – that connects cortical areas.

From Van Horn et al. (2012) PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e37454A slack-jawed Gage is now pierced by a ghostly iron bar that passes almost silently though his skull.

Gage himself is equally supernatural.

Blank white eyes float lifelessly in his eye sockets – staring into the digital blackness.

His white matter tracts appear within his cranium but are digitally dyed and seem to resemble multi-coloured hair standing on end like the electrified mop of a fairground ghoul.

But as the immortal Gage has become more horrifying over time, living portraits of the railwayman have been discovered. They show an entirely different side to the shattered skull celebrity.

To date, two portraits have been identified. They both show a ruggedly handsome, well-dressed man.

He has gentle flesh. Rather than staring into blackness, he looks at us.

Like a 19th century auto-whaler holding his self-harpoon, he grips the tamping iron, proud and defiant.

I prefer this living Phineas.

He does not become more alien with every new image.

He is at peace with a brutal, chaotic world.

He knows what he has lived through.

Fuck the freak flag, he says.

I’m a survivor.

5 thoughts on “The postmortem portraits of Phineas Gage”

  1. I’m trying to figure out what the opposite of seeing the skull beneath the skin is. Whatever it is, you’ve done it – turned the screaming bony exhibit back into the human being.

  2. Nice, Vaughan. Reminds me why I read Mind Hacks. If not just for the scientific standards of research, but also the human element you bring to it. Long may you reign.

  3. Gage is oddly beloved here in my home state of Vermont. We seem to have sort of “claimed” him even though he wasn’t from here. There is a memorial site in Cavendish, VT and they had a festival upon the 150th anniversary of his accident. Other anniversaries are noted, too, like the 150th anniversary of his death a few years ago.

    Sadly the memorial has only a rod-through-head image and a portrait of Dr. Harlow on it. Maybe someday they can update it to include one of these striking images of Phineas.

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