The story of Phineas Gage and other great moments in psychology

In 1848, Phineas Gage, a railroad worker, suffered a catastrophic brain injury following a gunpowder accident. The accident, which took place in Cavendish, Vermont, was brutal even by present day standards. A one-metre (three-foot) long tamping iron, weighing 6.12 kilograms (13.5 pounds) pierced Gage’s skull. The tamping rod entered below his left cheek bone and exited his skull after being propelled through the anterior frontal cortex and white matter of his brain.

Right: A computer generated image of the injury suffered by Phineas Gage

What is amazing about the event is that Gage survived the accident, regained consciousness and was taken, sitting up, in a horse-drawn cart to the doctor. Even more astounding was the fact that he recovered from the injury and returned to work. However, the unfortunate Gage did not escape fully from the ravages of his accident and suffered significant personality changes. An account of Gage’s accident and the controversy surrounding the truth about the of the injury was documented in the book An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage (2000) by Australian psychologist Malcolm Macmillan.

The story of Gage and other important moments in the history of psychology are now the subject of an innovative new series of podcasts developed, written and produced by York University psychology Professor Christopher Green (left). Titled “This Week in the History of Psychology”, the podcasts document, over 30 weeks, the stories and milestones in the history of the modern psychological movement.

“The primary aim of the series is to delve a little more deeply into the discipline than textbooks typically do, while making the experience relatively simple and enjoyable,” says Green. “The focus of each episode is an interview with a noted expert on a featured event that occurred during that week in psychology’s past.

“For instance, I interview Malcolm Macmillan on the real story of Phineas Gage’s famous head injury, and York psychology professor Alexandra Rutherford on the public image cultivated by American psychologists B.F. Skinner and Wayne Viney, on the impact of the publication of William James’ book titled Principles of Psychology.”

Green, using an easy conversational style, interviews figures in the field of psychology about these historic moments. He probes their reflections and knowledge on the history of psychology. Included in his series is an in-depth interview with Macmillan, who is also a professor of psychology at Deakin University in Austrailia, about Phineas Gage. (Visit This Week in the History of Psychology Web site or click here to listen to a sample of the interview with Macmillan.)

An avid technophile, Green says he saw the potential of podcasting as a great medium for extending the learning experience for students in his courses. Green teaches courses, in the Department of Psychology in York’s Faculty of Health, on statistical methods for psychology and the history of psychology at the undergraduate level. He also teaches courses in the history and theory of psychology at the graduate level.

“I’ve been doing a lot in electronic and Internet-based projects,” said Green.

“Ten years ago, I developed an early Web site that gets over three million hits per year, the site, History & Theory of Psychology Eprint Archive serves as a primary sources of materials and is an e-print archive of researchers’ and scholars’ reports.”

Podcasting, says Green, offers huge potential over traditional Listservs and Web sites. “It’s the next big thing,” he explains. “Traditionally courses on the history of psychology are based in textbooks. And that can be very dull. Textbooks are also very limited and due to length restrictions, often the colourful anecdotes are left out.

“I am very tired of the black ink on a white paper circuit,” says Green. “I think that professors have to keep up on technology if we want to connect with students and engage them.

“If you can make it electronic, put it on the Internet or make it hip through podcasting, it speaks to students in a way they recognize and care about. Podcasting is also a great way to bypass the limitations imposed by traditional methods and the students can download the podcasts right off the Web and listen to them when it fits into their schedule.”

Green’s podcasts are available free of charge to anyone who has a computer. He describes them as understandable and comprehensive. “I created the podcasts as a tool to help supplement my courses and those taught by others in the field. They will be assigned to students much like I would assign a reading. I’m hoping the podcasts will provide the fodder for some interesting discussions because the podcasts tackle issues and controversies in the history of psychology.”

Each episode takes Green about six hours to complete. The format is casual and Green has incorporated music which he describes as being Indie garage band in its style into each episode. “The fall semester is complete with 15 episodes. I am working on the winter semester podcasts right now.”

By posting his work on the Internet and making it free of charge, Green is taking his unique approach to teaching the history of psychology to a global audience. He has posted several sample episodes and they are available as mp3 files which can be easily downloaded onto a personal computer. The series is also available on iTunes (search podcasts for “This Week in the History of Psychology”) for download to iPods and other portable mp3 players. The series officially launches Aug. 28.

For more information on Christopher Green, visit his Web site at