Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Review: Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science

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Book Review of:

Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science, by John Fleischman


This non-fiction book for children and young adults gives an interesting look at how one man's accident in1848 that sent an iron rod through his brain left him alive, but completely altered in personality. This is Phineas Gage, a man who worked as a foreman in railroad construction until the accident made him lash out in angry bursts, unable to concentrate on tasks, and basically turned him into a different person.  Part description of this incredible accident and part look at how this came to be a huge breakthrough in what doctors and neuroscientists understand about the working of the human brain, readers will enjoy the shock and awe of Phineas' incredible story, as well as learning about medical conditions and practices in the mid-19th century and how the brain works.
Fleischman, J. (2002). Phineas Gage. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

After learning about Phineas Gage in introductory psychology classes at William and Mary, when I saw this on my class reading list, I jumped at the chance to learn more. The book tells Phineas' story in the present active voice from the first sentence, "The most unlucky/lucky moment in the life of Phineas Gage is only a minute or two away," (Fleischman, 2002, p. 1). It gives readers the feel of how the accident went down, and it's truly one of those stories that, although somewhat horrific, is interesting in only the way that terrible accidents can be-- like watching a car accident. But it's not painted in an overly graphic way. Instead, the tone is scientific, and gives great background of the medical practices at the time, as well as information on different kinds of brain injuries, and a history of how doctors learned about the presence of cells and bacteria. After Phineas Gage's obvious wounds were patched, he began acting in a way completely unlike his old self. He was rude, indecisive, crass, foul-mouthed, and angry.  He lost his ability to interact socially. He ended up dying 11 years later from seizures that were probably another consequence of his brain injury from long ago. This remarkable story is not one to miss for any one-- children to adult-- who want to hear an incredible story of a man's accident and understand how the brain works. Alternating text with photographs and diagrams of the brain, this book makes non-fiction engaging and interesting. Complete with a glossary of terms, a list of resources for further reading, and a detailed index, this would be a great book for casual reading or for research.

Professional Reviews:

"Gr. 7-10. Railroad foreman and blasting expert Phineas Gage was hard at work in 1848 when an improperly prepared charge of gunpowder rocketed a three-foot-long iron rod through his brain. Bloodied and blackened, Gage remained coherent and surprisingly relaxed as he rode an oxcart back to town to get help. He survived the accident for nearly a dozen years, though his personality changed drastically: the once amiable man became crude and argumentative. The author combines this believe-it-or-not story with a history of brain research, including everything from phrenology to high-tech tools. The text is vivid, though curiosity seekers drawn in by the promise of a gruesome story will get bogged down in heavier sections on brain physiology and chemistry. The illustrations are well captioned but don't have enough visual interest to attract browsers for more than a moment. Report writers and science buffs will be the book's best audience. A glossary and an annotated bibliography help make this a terrific resource."
Meyer, R. (2002, March 1). [Review of the book Phineas Gage, by J. Fleischman]. Booklist. Retrieved from
"The fascinating story of the construction foreman who survived for 10 years after a 13-pound iron rod shot through his brain. Fleischman relates Gage's "horrible accident" and the subsequent events in the present tense, giving immediacy to the text. He avoids sensationalizing by letting the events themselves carry the impact. The straightforward description of Gage calmly chatting on a porch 30 minutes after the accident, for example, comes across as horrifying and amazing. The author presents scientific background in a conversational style and jumps enthusiastically into such related topics as phrenology, 19th-century medical practices, and the history of microbiology. He shows how Gage's misfortune actually played an intriguing and important role in the development of our knowledge of the brain. The present-tense narrative may cause occasional confusion, since it spans several time periods and dates are not always immediately apparent from the text. Illustrations include historical photographs; one showing the iron bar posed dramatically next to Gage's skull is particularly impressive. Other photos and diagrams help explain the workings of the brain. The work of Gage expert Malcolm Macmillan, cited in the list of resources, seems the likely main source for the quotes and details of Gage's life, but this is not clearly spelled out in the text or appendixes. Like Penny Colman's Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts (Holt, 1997) and James M. Deem's Bodies from the Bog (Houghton, 1998), Phineas Gage brings a scientific viewpoint to a topic that will be delightfully gruesome to many readers."
 Englefried, Steven. (2002, March 1). [Review of the book Phineas Gage, by J. Fleischman]. School Library Journal. Retrieved from

Other Uses:

 Use this book in a book talk to introduce older children and teens to nonfiction books that might interest them. In this book talk, I would center my books around books that revolve around science, but also the horrific, because these tend to hook reluctant readers. Here are several options of other books to include in such a book talk. Book with pictures and diagrams are often good choices here because reluctant readers can sometimes be overwhelmed by text.

  • Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science, by John Fleischman
  • Bury the Dead: Tombs, Corpses, Mummies, Skeletons, & Rituals, by Christopher Sloan
    • Read my review of this book here-- This book discusses burial practices as uncovered by archaeologists in this book published by the National Geographic Society.
  • Bodies from the Ash, by James Deem
    •  About the bodies in Pompeii and Herculaneum that were recovered from the ashes of Mt. Vesuvius' AD 79 eruption. 
  • Bodies from the Bog, by James Deem
    • About bodies that have been recovered from bogs in Northern Europe.
  • Science Fair Season: Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch, and What It Takes to Win, by Judy Dutton
    • An international science fair that shows that science fair projects can go WAY beyond growing plants in different kinds of water.


  1. This sucks.. it has no proof of when he died..

  2. I cant figure out who the antagonist is i know that Phineas is the protagonist so would that make the iron rod the antagonist?