In 1848, Phineas Gage was working at his job as a railroad foreman when a slight mishap caused a three-and-a-half foot, thirteen-pound iron pole to rocket through his skull. The pole travelled through the side of his face, through his left eye socket, and out the top of his head, sailing eighty feet and landing, covered in guts and seriously freaking people out.
Even more freaky: Phineas looked around, and then started talking a few minutes after it happened. He headed back to town on a cart, sitting upright, and presented himself to waiting doctors. At one point he vomited, which caused part of his brain to fall out, but he remained conscious, if bloody, the entire time he was being examined.
Eventually, swelling on his brain put Phineas in a coma. His family prepared a coffin and funeral clothes, but by autumn Phineas was walking through town, recovered although he had lost use of his eye and feeling in the left side of his face.
The story of Phineas Gage has been dramatized in textbooks and popular culture—there are unsubstantiated stories that Gage became a misanthrope, a child molester, a wifebeater. Psychologists often use this inflated story to describe the way different parts of the brain function—the pole went through the frontal lobe, which controls behavior, and this would explain any resulting nasty behavior. Except there’s no evidence Gage turned into Mr. Hyde. Although he may have gone through a rough patch (hey, if I became famous for a horrible and disfiguring injury, I’d be cranky too) his story has become larger than life.
My point? There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in medicine, even without embellishment. The human body can take an iron pole through the head and continue to function. Women can give birth to ten-pound babies because their pelvises are designed to separate and then reconstitute. (Like in Terminator 2!) You have between 20 and 30 trillion red blood cells flowing through your veins right now. Don’t you feel badass?
I’ll be bringing you more health geekdom next week. I’m looking forward to telling you about grotesque and fantastic diseases, anatomical wonders, and the latest scientific innovations.