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The Strange Tales of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Phinas P. Gage and Stephen

Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde via
Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde via

“The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", written by Robert Lewis Stevenson in 1886, has stood the test of time as a study of the origin and nature of human evil. The novella had such an impact that now whenever we hear someone discribed as a "Jekyll and Hyde" we know immediately that the person can have different moral characters dependant on the situation.

Stevenson said his inspiration for the story came from a startling dream in which he saw a character that appeared to be gentle and benign change into one that was malevolent.

Though the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is fictional, the stories of Phinas Gage and Stephen are not fiction. They are very real.

Phinas Gage's story:

In September of 1848, 25 year old Phinas P. Gage, was working for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad as part of a crew that was laying new tracks for the railroad’s expansion into Vermont. Considered by his bosses “the most efficient and capable of men”, it was said that Gage was a virtuoso at setting explosive charges, because he had the ”physical prowess and keen concentration” that were essential for this task.

Yet, it seems his " keen concentration" failed him on that fall day and a "freak accident" took place. Gage was hard at work preparing a detonation, when he was distracted and prematurely tapped the powder with an iron tamping rod, sparking a fire that blew the charge upward into his face, propelling the iron rod into and through his brain.

The rod was unusual in that it had been made specifically for Gage and from his specifications - it was 3’7” in length and was pointed, tapering from 1 ¼ in. to ¼ in. in diameter. The force of the explosion thrust the point of the rod through Gage’s left cheek, piercing the base of his skull, traveling through the front of his brain and exiting at high speed through the top of his head, and landed more than a hundred feet away covered in blood and brains.

Amazingly, Gage stunned but awake, was carried sitting upright in a wagon to a hotel where he waited over an hour for the doctor to arrive.

Surviving the explosion with so large of a wound to the head is surprising, remaining coherent immediately following is astonishing and even more unbelievable. Phinas Gage was pronounced cured in less than two months.

And this is where the really strange tale begins.

Though his physical recovery was complete, he could touch, hear, see, speak and was not paralyzed, it became clear as soon as the acute phase of the brain injury subsided that Phinas Gage was no longer Phinas Gage.

Before the accident Gage was said to have “temperate habits” and a “well-balanced mind”. He was looked upon as “a shrewd, smart, business man, very energetic and persistent in executing his plans of action”. There is little doubt that in the context of his job and time he was successful and well thought of.

However, after the physical recover he was said to be “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest of profanity - which was not previously his custom”. He manifested little concern for others and was impatient of restraint or advice that conflicted with his desires. He was "perniciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating". He devised many plans for the future but had no follow through. “A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he had the animal passions of a strong man.” Gage was such a different man that friends and associates could not recognize him.

Once a dependable and respected employee Phinas Gage could no longer hold a job and it has been told that he became a derelict, a circus side show exhibit and wander who died in obscurity 13 years after his accident.

Now, well over a century and a half later, what happened to Phinas Gage on that September day in Vermont has led to a new understanding of how the brain and body become one to form mind and personality. As well as how our view of right and wrong, of moral restraint and societal convention, also derives from the brain, or, more specifically, the human frontal lobes.

Though Stevenson said his inspiration for the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came from a startling dream in which he saw a character that appeared to be gentle and benign change into one that was malevolent. One has to wonder.

Stephen's Story:

Though Gage became irreverent and profane in an instant, young Stephen seemed to have been touched by an angel and diverted from his troubled path by a single bullet to the head.

In the mid 1980s Stephen, a rowdy teenager who had already been treated for alcoholism and had a string of juvenile arrests, played a dangerous game one night and wound up a completely different person.

Wanting to frighten his father, Stephen put a gun to his right temple and fired. It was to have been a practical joke... there was not suppose to be a bullet in the chamber... but the joke went horribly wrong and Steven fired a live bullet into his right temple... the bullet tore through the front of Stephen's brain, before lodging in the left side of his forehead.

Stephen was rushed to the hospital where surgeons removed the bullet, cleaned the wound and sutured it up. Ultimately, Stephen survived.

A year later Stephen had returned to school and was doing reasonably well in comparison to before he was shot in the head. Plus, to his father's great delight, his behavior had never been better.

When asked by the Doctor who'd removed the bullet, ”Is he the son you knew before?” his father replied, ”No not at all. His personality is completely different; his sense of humor isn't what it was. No, he isn't like he was before, but I like him better this way.”

Read “ A Bullet to the Mind” by Frank Vertosick Jr.

Could it be that the human capacity for good and evil is located in the white matter of the brains prefrontal cortex, that area of the brain adherents of phrenology refer to as The “Organ of Veneration" and/or the adjacent "Organ of Benevolence"?

Obviously the study of the mind and brain has come a long way since Phinas Gage, and though there's still far to go, but these stories serve to remind us that good and evil reside side by side in each and every one of us. And it might only takes a moment of extreme trauma (physical or emotional), or a drug (street or prescribed) to disrupt the brain and completely change our character, for good or for bad.

As different as their outcomes were, Gage’s tamping rod and Stephen’s gun were both aimed at the what could be called the seat of our soul, our individuality, our humanity. Descartes believed the soul resided in the pineal gland, a small, conical structure deep in the brain, below the frontal lobes, it seems he wasn't too far off.

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