Sunday, July 15, 2018

“The Tamping Iron Speaks”: Poetry Inspired by a Notorious Work Accident

            Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the name of Phineas Gage, the victim of one of the most remarkable work accidents in history. Gage, who suffered a brain injury, is reliably mentioned in just about every neurology and neuroscience book for the lay public that one can pick up.

            In September 1848, Gage was supervising workers blasting rock in preparation of a roadbed for an early Vermont railway. “Setting a blast” involved a skilled worker boring a hole deep into an out­crop of rock, adding blasting powder and a fuse, and then using a “tamping iron” to tamp sand into the hole above the powder, in effect to make a plug.

            Gage became distracted during the process. According to an accurate Wikipedia summary, “As Gage was [undertaking the process] … his attention was attracted by his men working behind him. Looking over his right shoulder, and inad­vert­ent­ly bringing his head into line with the blast hole, Gage opened his mouth to speak; in that same instant the tamping iron sparked against the rock and (possibly because the sand had been omitted) the powder exploded. Rocketed from the hole, the tamping iron‍ – 114 inches … in diameter, three feet seven inches … long, and weighing 1314 pounds … ‍ – ‌entered the left side of Gage's face in an upward direction, just forward of the angle of the lower jaw. Continuing upward outside the upper jaw and possibly fracturing the cheekbone, it passed behind the left eye, through the left side of the brain, and out the top of the skull through the frontal bone.”

            The amazing aspect of the story of the story is that Gage not only lived, but was able to recover and live a fairly normal life for another twelve years. The loss of significant frontal lobe brain tissue altered his personality severely but did not, as many physicians at the time expected, necessarily result in his death. See Gage did ultimately die of brain seizures caused by his injury.

            Although much has been written about Gage, a modernist poem has now been published which is perhaps in its own category – it gives the point of view of the tamping iron which both caused the injury -- and which Gage so famously clung to, after the accident and for the rest of his life. The poem, The Tamping Iron Speaks, authored by Zoe Hitzig, appeared in the June 7, 2018 issue of the London Review of Books. The poem is presumably inspired by her contemplation of the iron, as it is on display, along with Gage’s skull, at a museum at Harvard Medical School (the poet is also an economics Ph.D. candidate at Harvard.)

            For this brief reverie, see

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