Some Distinguished Skulls

May 18th, 2009 · 5:43 pm  →  the blog

I’m finally getting around to posting some surreptitious shots of the heads of Johann Spurzheim and Phineas Gage; the museum that houses these fine craniums doesn’t allow photography, so these were taken through clandestine means, thus the poor quality.

The skull of Johann Spurzheim

The skull of Johann Spurzheim

One thing you don’t get a sense of here is the size of Spurzheim’s head; that man had a huge cranium. This was, of course, important for phrenology, and the prevailing notion that brain volume could directly be correlated to intelligence. Spurzheim’s teacher, Franz-Joseph Gall, the founder of phrenology (or organology, or cranioscopy—whatever you want to call it) had an embarrassingly small head; his brain was recorded as weighing a mere 1,198 grams, well below the average of 1,400 grams for a European white male and even below the average for Africans or Native Americans (these “averages”, of course, are total nonsense; as Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated—and which I discuss in the book—these averages were contrived to conform to a pre-existing belief in the hierarchy of races). Spurzheim, however, had a good-sized brain weight of about 1,700 grams, thus “proving” his genius. And it’s not hard to believe, when you see his head, which dwarfed the other skulls on display.

Gage is interesting; the first person to accidentally receive a frontal lobotomy, when a iron rod was blasted through his skull. The following high-quality description I took from Wikipedia (Gage isn’t in the book, though perhaps he should have been), though it’s not for the squeamish:

On September 13, 1848, twenty-five-year-old Gage was foreman of a work gang blasting rock while preparing the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington Railroad outside the town of Cavendish, Vermont. After a hole was drilled into a body of rock, one of Gage’s duties was to add gunpowder, a fuse, and sand, then compact (“tamp down”) the charge using a large iron rod. Possibly because the sand was omitted, around 4:30 PM: “the powder exploded, carrying an instrument through his head an inch and a fourth in [diameter], and three feet and [seven] inches in length, which he was using at the time. The iron entered on the side of his face, shattering the upper jaw, and passing back of the left eye, and out at the top of the head.”

Nineteenth-century references to Gage as “the American crowbar case” can be misleading. For Americans of the time a crowbar did not have the bend or claw sometimes associated with that term today. Gage’s iron was something like a javelin, “round and rendered comparatively smooth by by use”: “The end which entered first is pointed; the taper being [twelve] inches long…circumstances to which the patient perhaps owes his life. The iron is unlike any other, and was made by a neighbouring blacksmith to please the fancy of its owner.” Weighing 13-1/4 lb (6 kg), this “abrupt and intrusive visitor” was said to have landed some 80 feet (25 m) away.

Amazingly, Gage spoke within a few minutes, walked with little or no assistance, and sat upright in a cart for the 3/4-mile ride to town. The first physician to arrive was Dr. Edward H. Williams: “I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct. Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders. I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head….Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor.”

Dr. John Martyn Harlow took charge of the case about an hour later: “You will excuse me for remarking here, that the picture presented was, to one unaccustomed to military surgery, truly terrific; but the patient bore his sufferings with the most heroic firmness. He recognized me at once, and said he hoped he was not much hurt. He seemed to be perfectly conscious, but was getting exhausted from the hemorrhage. Pulse 60, and regular. His person, and the bed on which he was laid, were literally one gore of blood.”

The fact that Gage survived this unfortunate incident and went on to live another twelve years became a watershed in modern neurology. Many friends and commentators noticed that Gage’s behavior changed dramatically after the accident (though reports on how extensively differ), and it was Gage that first gave anatomists the notion that behavioral tendencies could be altered by affecting different parts of the brain. For many, Gage’s experience ultimately led to the discovery and implementation of frontal lobe lobotomies.

The skull of Phineas Gage

The skull of Phineas Gage

From the photo you can see the path of the iron rod–it went up through the bottom of his head, under his left cheek, angled slightly–coming out the top where the flap of bone subsequently re-grew.  I had long heard an apocryphal story that the pathway of the rod was somehow cleared and maintained, and that Gage subsequently toured as a circus freak, allowing people to insert things through the length of his injury.  I can’t remember how long ago I heard that story, or how long I’ve been carrying it around, but clearly no such performances took place.  One of the lessons that one does learn from Gage’s skull, though, is the way in which medical lore and mythology can quickly develop and take on a life of its own.