Phineas Gage enjoys an unfortunate fame in neuroscience circles: After a 5-foot iron tamping rod blew through his head one September afternoon in 1848, the once amiable and capable railroad foreman became a uncouth ne-er-do-well — and Exhibit A in how particular brain areas tended to specialize in particular tasks. (In his case, the prefrontal cortical areas that went skyward with the tamping rod proved, in retrospect, to be vital to his powers of foresight and self-control.)
I’ve always taken an extra level of interest in Gage because his horrific accident happened in my adopted home state of Vermont, in Cavendish, not terribly far from where I type this. I’ve long wanted to visit the scene of the accident. If you’d like to as well, you have the chance this weekend if you can get up to Vermont. To mark the 150th anniversary of Gage’s death (which came 12 years after his accident), the Cavendish Historical Society is taking what sounds like a phenomenal two-hour walking tour that includes the accident site, the home and office of the surgeon who treated him, the boarding house where he was taken, presumably to die, and the carpenter’s shop in which was built the coffin he turned out not to need.
Here’s the tour description:
May 23 (Sunday): To mark the 150th anniversary of Phineas Gage’s death, CHS is holding a walking tour of sites relating to his accident. Meet at the Museum, Main Street Cavendish, at 2 pm. The tour will take about two hours and will visit the accident site where Gage had the tamping rod go through his head; and the locations of the home and surgery of Dr. Harlow; the boarding house where Gage was taken and the carpentar’s shop, which built the coffin that he ended up not needing. Please read more about Gage in the previous post to this blog. If you would like copies of the walking tour guide, you can pick them up at the Cavendish Town Office or the Cavendish Library. You can obtain an PDF copy by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and writing “directions for Phinease Gage tour” in the subject heading.
For details, check out the Cavendish History Society calendar. If you get the map (see above), you could walk it on your own someday, though you’d miss what is likely a richly informed account from the guides. (That, unfortunately, is what I’ll have to do, because I’ve got a prior commitment that day. I have to play baseball. Tough life.)
While you’re in Cavendish (which is in southeast Vermont, about 4 hours from NYC or 2.5 from Boston), you can also try to find the house in which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived, though, in good New England style, the locals might not tell you. Or they might simply tell you, “You can’t get theah from heah.”