By: Ming Santos
Even if you have never seen, let alone visited a neurologist or a psychotherapist, you must have, at one point in your life, heard of Phineas Gage.
What do you mean you haven’t heard of him? I mean come on, when a guy survives after getting impaled by a three foot long iron rod in the skull, he tends to become famous. However, that’s not the only interesting thing about Gage. What’s curious about his case is that after he survived, he changed the world of neurology forever.
Phineas “You Make Me Feel Brand New” Gage
On September 13, 1848, 25 year old Gage was just doing his job as a construction foreman for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Vermont – he was busy packing explosives on the ground – the charge on the explosives detonated without warning. The iron rod he was using to tamp the explosives into the ground flew with such a force that when it hit his head, the 3 foot 7 inch rod entered his left cheek, went straight through his skull (and brain, of course) and emerged at the top of his head.
Moments later, they loaded him onto a cart and took him to a hotel where some doctor attended to him. Everyone was expecting him to die – Gage was bleeding profusely and the rod caused his left eye to become blind – but, curiously enough, he was able to walk and talk! Weeks after the accident, Gage was allowed to return to work, but his boss wouldn’t give him the same position as before. He complained that Gage had become rude, foul mouthed and irritable whereas before, he was mild-mannered, efficient and polite.
As such, Gage was never allowed to work at his former job again, until such a time that P.T. Barnum, famed exhibitor of “freaks”, hired him and put him on display as a curiosity along with the iron rod which impaled his head. Gage lived 13 years after his accident, dying because of epileptic seizures.
Gage’s accident made the enlightened people of the society think that certain portions of the brain can affect an individual’s personality. After studying Gage’s case, a surgeon concluded that tumors located on the frontal lobes of the brain had no effect on the cognitive functions of the brain; however, such localized tumors (or lesions) may indeed produce such uncharacteristic changes in a person’s behavior, as in Gage’s case.
This same surgeon removed a tumor from a patient’s brain in 1894. The patient initially complained that his thinking has become dull. Seeing the similarities between the patient’s mental faculties and Gage’s, he successfully removed the tumor that lay – you said it – in the left frontal lobes of the brain.
Now that they know that certain areas of the brain are responsible for certain functions, scientists became braver in experimenting with the brain. Now here comes the gritty part – when a German scientist discovered that dogs became tamer after the removal of their temporal lobes, doctors at an insane asylum in Sweden started performing lobotomies on hard, restless, even violent patients. As in the case of the German doctor’s dogs, these lobotomized patients became calmer after their surgeries.
The Ice Pick King and the Lobotomy Brouhaha
Lobotomies fell out of favor after a while, that is, until Walter Freeman came. Freeman created the “superquick” method of performing lobotomies on patients – he locally anesthetized his patients and plunged an ice pick through the skull. Yes, you read it right. As if this wasn’t enough, Freeman would then swing the ice pick back and forth, effectively severing the frontal lobe.
Ice pick lobotomies only took a few minutes, and it was reported that Freeman would usually set up shop and perform as much as ten lobotomies – not in a day – but in a single afternoon.
Lobotomy became such a craze in the 1960’s until it came to a point wherein it was no longer used to control violent psychiatric patients – homosexuals, “troublesome” personalities, political radicals, even “undesirables” got the treatment. It escalated into such a crescendo that even amateurs got to do it! These amateurs performed lobotomies without even performing psychiatric evaluations of their patients (think of the character Sweet Pea from the movie “Sucker Punch”).
I Rest My Craze
Due to the seemingly crude and inhuman nature of lobotomies, the procedure is now outlawed in most countries, but they are still occasionally performed to subdue violent behavior in some countries.
We have Phineas Gage to thank for, because his case revolutionized neurology – in good ways and in bad.