Thursday, March 13, 2014

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science - John Fleischman

Summary:  Phineas Gage was truly a man with a hole in his head. A railroad construction foreman, Phineas was blasting rock near Cavendish, Vermont, in 1848 when a thirteen-pound iron rod was shot through his brain. Miraculously, he survived another eleven years and became a textbook case in brain science. But he was forever changed by the accident, and what happened inside his brain will tell you a lot about how your brain works and what makes us who we are.  (Summary from and image from

My Review:  Have you ever wondered how the brain works?  How it came to be that we know as much as we do about the brain before technology moved us ahead?  How we went from believing the heart governed the body to the brain?  Or are you simply looking for a book that could possibly capture the attention of your teenage child?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, I highly recommend picking up this book.

Phineas Gage is a captivating story about a young man who had it all going for him, only to have it come crashing down after a tragic accident that by most accounts should have killed him.  And it did.  But not for another ten or so years. That's not to say he left unscathed for those years in between.  In fact, most that knew him said he was almost an entirely different person after the accident.  So what happened?  Here's a Reader's Digest version: By a fluke accident, a metal rod, called a tamping iron, fell from his hands, landed on explosives set below him to blast a track for the railroad track he was working to build, and flew up and through his skull.  How he survived?  I'm going to make you read the book to find out.

This is young Phineas Gage after the accident holding the tamping iron.  (Image from  
Initially I was going to add more photos, but decided against it in case it offended an unsuspecting reader sensitive to images of this sort.  Feel free to Google his name if you're curious; you'll find lots of interesting pictures about what happened.

While most of the book follows Phineas' story, there is a lot of scientific information about the brain, how it works, and what we learned over time and from Phineas' story. I found this a pleasant surprise.  So much of what we know about the brain has evolved since Phineas' accident in the 1800's (lumps on the head indicating the type of person you are, etc.), and while it's sad to hear of someone loosing so much, I loved learning how it shaped what we know about our brains.

Great nonfiction is exploding onto the marketplace of libraries and classrooms (corny pun intended).  This is another example of one of those books.  If you have difficult to engage readers, ones who really don't get into a fictional tale, try handing him or her this.  My middle school students couldn't help but want to know more about how this tragic story ended and why he didn't die in the first place.  And honestly, so did I!

For the sensitive reader:  If you have a hard time with images depicting what could have happened, even though they are drawn, I recommend you skip certain pages in the book.  Otherwise, it's factual and clean.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Sum it up: A fascinating story of a brain injury that helped the world understand more about how the brain works.


ailyn koay said...

oh I am very interested in this. I did recall some documentaries quoting this incident as the basis of research =)

Unknown said...

Oh, I'd about forgotten about this one! We had to read it for Battle of the Books one year in middle school, and I found it absolutely fascinating. Others on the team were grossed out and couldn't get through it, though.


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