The real story of Phineas Gage
Gage’s supposed personality and cognitive transformation
happened in 1848, when the 25-year-old railroad company
foreman was blasting away rock to clear the way for a railroad.
He drilled a hole into a rock and, as usual, pushed the explosive
powder into the hole with a three-and-a-half-foot-long iron. The
powder exploded unexpectedly, driving the iron below his left
cheekbone and out through the crown of his head with such force
that the rod landed some 70 feet away. Gage not only survived,
but, according to witnesses, talked coherently and walked just
minutes after the injury.
This much of the story is undoubtedly true, Macmillan
says. At this point, however, myth diverges from contemporary
sources. Textbooks tell how the gaping, bleeding injury —
probably to one or both frontal lobes — turned the popular,
temperate Gage into an angry, unstable drunk. But Gage’s
closer associates reported that while he was recuperating on his
parents’ farm, he amused his nieces and nephews by making up
adventurous stories. He also showed a particular fondness for
animals, especially horses. His previous employer refused to take
him back after he recovered, so he earned money appearing with
his tamping iron in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, a freak
show in New York. Later, he worked for a New Hampshire livery
stable and stagecoach company.
About four years after the accident, Gage went to Chile,
where he drove a stagecoach on the 60-mile route between
Valparaiso and Santiago. Succeeding in this type of work in
a foreign country would require adaptability, discipline and
interpersonal skills, which contradicts the popular belief that
Gage was intellectually and emotionally impaired, argues
Macmillan. A doctor who knew him during this period observed
“no impairment whatever,” Macmillan adds. Nonetheless, Gage’s
health began to deteriorate, and in 1860 he returned to his
family, now living in California. There he suffered several seizures
but continued to work. He died of a seizure in 1861. “There was
nothing psychopathic in Gage’s behavior and … the changes in
his life are more coherently explained … as his way of dealing
with disfigurement that he suffered after the accident,” argues
Zbigniew Kotowicz, PhD, of London University in a 2007 article
in the History of the Human Sciences. “Although … Phineas may
not have been the Gage he once had been, he seems to have come
much closer than is commonly believed,” adds Macmillan in a
2010 article in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.
The myth persists “partly because a small number of writers
deliberately distort the facts in order to fit Phineas into a
theoretical framework of their own,” says Macmillan.
However, as a graduate student instructor, you can right
the record, he says, by telling the true story of Gage. Or even
better — encourage students to read primary-source accounts
of Gage’s life and draw their own conclusions. “It’s a great
story for illustrating the need to go back to original sources,”
The horrible blow to Phineas Gage’s head did not appear to
change his personality at all, despite reports in psychology texts.
Who tried to help Kitty Genovese?
No one doubts that Kitty Genovese, 28, was stabbed to death
in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, N. Y., in the early
hours of March 13, 1964. However, the story of the impassive
witnesses seems to have sprung up about two weeks later.
The first articles in The Long Island Press and The New York
Times made no mention of witnesses. But a front-page March 27
Times story shocked the nation. “For more than half an hour,”
the article began, “thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in
Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate
attacks in Kew Gardens.… Not one person telephoned the
police during the assault.” Publications across the nation quickly
followed with their own accounts.
Recently, Joseph De May Jr., a lawyer, historian and Kew
Gardens resident, has argued that few residents of nearby buildings
could have seen the attack or understood that Genovese’s life was
in danger — and, more important, that people did intervene, by
either shouting at the attacker or calling the police.
Trial testimony established that Winston Moseley attacked
Genovese not three times but twice, with a 10-minute hiatus