A special programme on the extraordinary case of Phineas Gage, a 19th century railway worker who survived a bizarre accident that changed him and the study of neuroscience forever.

A moment's distraction was Phineas Gage’s downfall. As foreman of the gang clearing rocks for the laying of the railway line near Cavendish, Vermont, he was responsible for setting the charge, drilling a hole in the rock and using an iron rod to tamp the explosive down before lighting the fuse.

On September 13th 1848, his tamping iron struck the side of the hole, setting off a spark which ignited the powder. The resulting explosion sent the iron, which was over a metre long and three centimetres in diameter, up through his skull above his eye and out through the top of his head. It landed 30 metres away. Amazingly Phineas Gage survived. Unconscious for a few seconds, he got up, rode an oxcart into town and lived for a further 12 years.

However he did not escape unscathed - his personality was considerably altered. Phineas Gage was no longer a hardworking, dependable and well-liked foreman. He swore, was shiftless, and behaved inappropriately.

For the first time, this was evidence that the brain affects the way we behave, and the scene was set for the mapping of the brain functions.

Claudia Hammond visits Harvard Medical School Museum in Boston to see for herself what remains of the man with the hole in his head. At the Oliver Zangwill Centre for Neuropsychological Rehabilitation in Ely, Cambridgeshire she meets clients with brain injuries similar to those suffered by Phineas Gage and discovers how far we've come in understanding and treatment since Gage suffered his appalling trauma.

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Sat 12 Mar 2011 05:32 GMT

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