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Not long ago, American scientists once again turned their attention to the case of Phineas P. Gage, whose strange fate raised the possibility that the brain contains a “moral center.”
On September 13, 1848, Gage, a 25-year-old construction foreman for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, was at work in rural Vermont supervising the detonation of rocks to level terrain for railroad tracks when he became the victim of a bizarre accident. The blasting required drilling holes in the stone, partially filling the holes with explosive powder, covering the powder with sand, and using a fuse and a tamping iron to trigger an explosion into the rock. On the day of the accident, a distraction led Gage to begin tamping directly over the powder before his assistant had had a chance to cover it with sand. This caused a powerful explosion which sent the sharply pointed tamping iron shooting, rocket like, through Gage’s face, skull, brain and into the sky. The iron landed many yards away.
The accident horrified onlookers but Gage, who was momentarily stunned, quickly regained consciousness and soon was able to talk and even walk with the help of his men. In the weeks that followed, he remained able-bodied and showed no loss of either movement, memory or speech. He seemed to be as intelligent as before the accident. It soon became obvious, however, that his personality had radically changed.