Is there no problem the internet can't solve - Flickr finds only known photo of Phineas Gage
July 29, 2009 9:43 PM   Subscribe

While many quirky news buffs may be aware of the story of Phineas Gage -- the Vermont railroad foreman who had a three foot iron rod penetrate his skull as the result of an explosion and lived to tell about it -- fewer know that the only known photograph of him was recently discovered. Fewer still know that the identification of that photograph happened via a Flickr comment. (no thanks to you LA Times, previously)

- More on Gage from the owners of the photograph
- other interesting pictures from their collection
- Wikipedia article on Gage
- "The American Crowbar Case and nineteenth century theories of cerebral localization"
- More stories like this over at Flickr Discoveries
- Other cool stuff over at the Harvard Medical School's Warren Museum
- obligatory slideshare deck (actually pretty interesting)
posted by jessamyn (77 comments total) 85 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow, this is a great. Like almost every kid in a high school psych class, I learned the tale of Phineas Gage and marveled at the odd but resilient human brain. The picture of him totally lives up to my expectations. And I'm especially loving the flickr angle.
posted by voltairemodern at 9:55 PM on July 29, 2009


Such a fascinating story. I'm just starting to delve into the links, but I wanted to say, re the flickr comment link: Wow! Is there anything the internet can't do?!
posted by amyms at 9:55 PM on July 29, 2009


Oh, great, now everyone's going to be putting their daguerreotypes on Flickr and the Interwebs will screech to a halt.

Thanks, jessamyn!
posted by lukemeister at 9:57 PM on July 29, 2009 [4 favorites]


The LA Times says this, which cracks me up: "The daguerreotype has been in the possession of Jack and Beverly Wilgus for 30 years, although they do not know its origin. They thought it was an image of a whaler holding his harpoon, but whaling experts viewing it online told them it was not. Then an anonymous tipster suggested it was Gage."

Hee hee, whaling experts. They actually know the guy's name who posted the astute comment, but he didn't have much of an online presence and doesn't seem to be touting this himself, so I figured I'd leave his name off of this, but it's findable if people are curious.
posted by jessamyn at 10:03 PM on July 29, 2009


I'm a neurobiology student, as many of you well know.

THIS IS EXCELLENT.
posted by kldickson at 10:05 PM on July 29, 2009


Under the "other interesting pictures" link I found these. I love postmortem photographs, what a great website!
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:16 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was absolutely obsessed about the Gage story in my early teens, but later it sort of got shot out of my mind. This is great, thank you!
posted by Dumsnill at 10:17 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


Was reading the askme that led to this awesome fpp and story. Fascinating. Thank you Jessamyn!
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:20 PM on July 29, 2009


In his honor I'll say: Son of a bitch, that's fucking great.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:31 PM on July 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


I just now realized that my earlier comment was almost the same as the post title [insert embarrassed face here].
posted by amyms at 10:44 PM on July 29, 2009


Awesome! I'm excited to show this to my Intro Psych students in the fall. (Now, whether they'll be as psyched by it as I am is debatable.)
posted by rebel_rebel at 10:51 PM on July 29, 2009


As awesome as this is, isn't it kind of weird that the "owners" of the photo insist on putting a watermark on it? I mean, I guess in some weird way it's valuable as an original piece they own and can sell, but why not make a free digital version in high resolution that anyone (esp. academics) can use?

I just don't see the gain to be had in having it watermarked. It could still be a valuable piece that can fetch many thousands (and would probably grow more popular if the image were freely distributed sans-watermark all over the world).
posted by mathowie at 10:56 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


I want to see this as a movie. It would actually be a Phineas Gage bigraphic, but a whole chunk would be a present-tense documentary about how the movie came to be, starting with the flicker photos. The modern-day stuff would be narrated by the people who found the pics, and the story of Gage would be re-enacted, all badass style. I'm thinking Walken?
posted by Afroblanco at 11:07 PM on July 29, 2009


Is Phineas Gage winking at us?
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 11:08 PM on July 29, 2009


"High resolution photographs without a watermark are available for reproduction. Contact us for information on usage fees. For several years we have had an informal business supplying images in our collection to publishers, film, and television producers for a modest fee. Images from our collection have been used in magazines, text books, television productions, and movies. We sometimes grant permission for teachers, students, and non-profit usage, asking only for a credit line and, perhaps, a copy of the publication if it interests us."
posted by peacay at 11:10 PM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is it just me or did people look kinda crazy/obsessed back then?
posted by Avenger at 11:14 PM on July 29, 2009


Phineas Gage moved to Chile? WTF?
posted by bardic at 11:30 PM on July 29, 2009


SO.
COOL.
posted by The Whelk at 12:29 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Avenger: Well, Gage was kinda nuts after the whole tamping-rod-thru-brain adventure.
posted by ilsa at 1:02 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Phineas Gage is also a early citation by those making an argument that there is no immutable human soul, and that consciousness and personality arise from your brain chemistry.

Phineas Gage was a completely different person after his horrible accident and the resulting brain damage, so the argument went that if there was a mind or soul that existed independently of his body, why would Phineas be so markedly different?

I think I read about this first in V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms In The Brain.
posted by CRM114 at 1:17 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'll bet one tamping rod that Phineas Gage becomes a sockpuppet account.

That is a sockpuppet with a missing eye button and possibly a severe personality disorder of course.
posted by clearly at 1:21 AM on July 30, 2009


He was a good looking man. Without the injury to his eye, leading man handsome.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 1:44 AM on July 30, 2009


Could they not have used a bent bar for tamping down explosives?
posted by Abiezer at 1:58 AM on July 30, 2009


Was going to say the same thing, HCM.

Hell, dude was better looking than most men even after having his face pierced by a metal rod.
posted by Glee at 2:15 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


AWESOME.

also...

Dumsnill: I was absolutely obsessed about the Gage story in my early teens, but later it sort of got shot out of my mind.

har har har.
posted by molecicco at 2:31 AM on July 30, 2009


Someone has to ask: is it a fake? If there was a good picture of Gage in existence - and this looks like a celebrity picture, designed for wide distribution - it's surprising it never came up before. The people who 'found' it (where exactly?) are in the business of selling images.

Does it look like Gage's death mask*? Up to a point. The nose and chin look a little different to me, though it's hard to be sure and obviously the death mask is from later on.
posted by Phanx at 2:40 AM on July 30, 2009


Could they not have used a bent bar for tamping down explosives?

No. Straight hole; straight bar. The holes were deep.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:54 AM on July 30, 2009


"If there was a good picture of Gage in existence - and this looks like a celebrity picture, designed for wide distribution - it's surprising it never came up before."

Well, there is some faulty logic here. 'This looks like a celebrity picture' - does it? How so? It's posed and he's holding an unidentifiable rod of some kind. How does this indicate a promotional or saleable image? It may simply have been a memento for friends or family - it was a rather memorable series of events, after all. Photographs from the period were more often than not posed, with considerably elaborate staging and props, sometimes.

There is nothing here which appears to signify this image as designed for wide distribution. That seems to be a determination made on subjective grounds. He is not even identified in it, if the reproduction is the entire picture. The eye wound alone is no kind of identifying characteristic, how many people must have been missing an eye in that era?

There are many other examples of quite famous people in daguerreotype or other images which have disappeared for long periods, only to be found once again. The image of Lincoln lying in state springs to mind. Along with the (contested) image of Lincoln as a young man, another daguerreotype. Countless others must have been lost to time.

Things which were famous to our great grandparents were quickly forgotten only a generation later. Everything was hard copy. And hardcopy is lost, destroyed, or inevitably decays. Only with diligent curation do documents survive.

The real question is 'why would anyone fake a picture of Phineas Gage?' - he's not exactly anything more than a curiosity to history geeks, philosophers and neurological wonks.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 3:10 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember seeing this on TV when I was a kid.
I think it was on "You Asked For It".
OK, OK, it was 45-50 years ago for cryin' out loud!
posted by Drasher at 3:57 AM on July 30, 2009


After reading the Globe article last week I became quite interested in Phineas Gage because I live on a road in Vermont that shares his last name. The property surrounding the road used to belong to a Gage family, and there are Gages in the cemetery at the end of the road. I plan to ask our town historian what he may be able to find out for me.
posted by terrapin at 4:25 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


It pisses me off that whenever someone does something smart or interesting online it still gets credited to "Flickr" or "the internet" rather than the actual human that had the actual thought, as would probably happen in any offline venue.

Is the "Flickr user" named anywhere?
posted by cillit bang at 4:39 AM on July 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Haha! Amazing! Phineas Gage and his incredible story were part of the inspiration for this line from a song I posted on Mefi music earlier this year:

here comes a man with a red hot spike stuck through his head
ain't it a wonder, ain't it a wonder
a wonder he ain't dead


True, ol' Phineas wasn't walking around with a red-hot spike in his head, but... close enough.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:48 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


It pisses me off that whenever someone does something smart or interesting online it still gets credited to "Flickr" or "the internet" rather than the actual human that had the actual thought, as would probably happen in any offline venue.

Not exactly true, that. For example, a magazine or newspaper's name ("according to the New York Times..." --- "Newsweek reports that...") has been historically and is still almost always used in such cases, as opposed to the name of the individual journalist. Unless it's a star journalist, then you might get a name.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:53 AM on July 30, 2009


I agree, this photo is a very cool thing.

However, who the hell uses a pointy iron spike to tamp down gunpowder?! The point is aimed right at him too? What were they thinking?

Did they also have shovels and pick axes with handles made out of live, poisonous snakes?
posted by orme at 4:54 AM on July 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Is the "Flickr user" named anywhere?

Reading the links is highly recommended when you have questions of this sort! His name is Michael Spurlock, as I learned from reading the comments on one of jessamyn's main links from the FPP.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:00 AM on July 30, 2009


Did they also have shovels and pick axes with handles made out of live, poisonous snakes?

Yes, of course they did, but it wasn't a problem, as the snakes were warded off by the onions which they hung on their belts, which was... the style in those days.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:01 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is a very cool story that I remember vaguely from psych classes, but the first-hand accounts (from the wiki article linked above) are fascinating. He was up and talking within a few minutes? And it's interesting to note that the wiki article even states that little is actually recorded outside of his immediate care and recovery, so some of the reports of his "completely changed" personality seem to come from his employer not re-employing him after the accident.

And finally, a doctor actually recorded this sentence:

Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor.

What awfully descriptive imagery...
posted by This Guy at 5:12 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Reading the links is highly recommended when you have questions of this sort!

Ah, I didn't scroll that far through the comments. I still find it weird that both the picture owner and Jessamyn and the commenters here frame this as "Well done Flickr" and not "Well done Michael".
posted by cillit bang at 5:14 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


However, who the hell uses a pointy iron spike to tamp down gunpowder?!

I bet the tool was multi-purpose. Maybe to be used as a pick or pry bar.
posted by digsrus at 5:32 AM on July 30, 2009


Related
posted by Pollomacho at 5:39 AM on July 30, 2009


I see it as a 'celebrity' picture only because he's holding the bar that injured him, Henry. That seems to make it a picture about the injury more than about good old uncle Phineas. I mean, not to personalise, but my grandfather lost an eye through an accident with a bike: I don't recall family photos of him featuring the bike in a place of honour. Of course I could be quite wrong, it's guesswork not logic.

Why would anyone fake a picture? A trick, a challenge... profit - come on this is the Internet, we need a motive to fake pictures?

I'm not saying it is a fake, just that in the circumstances the question has to be asked. Unfortunately I don't think the death mask provides clear confirmation.
posted by Phanx at 5:39 AM on July 30, 2009


Michael Spurlock? Not a relative of Morgan Spurlock, perchance?
posted by Skeptic at 5:41 AM on July 30, 2009


who the hell uses a pointy iron spike to tamp down gunpowder

I don't know whether it's the same, but in the slate mines in Wales they used to use a very similar tool, first making a hole with the pointy end and then tamping the gunpowder into it with the blunt one.
posted by Phanx at 5:49 AM on July 30, 2009


my grandfather lost an eye through an accident with a bike: I don't recall family photos of him featuring the bike in a place of honour.

I'd bet that if the bike had gone through your grandfather's head and out the other side he might have had his picture snapped with said bicycle.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:54 AM on July 30, 2009 [11 favorites]


I bet the tool was multi-purpose.

The Victorinox powder tamper and lobotomy pick was one of the company's earliest combination tools.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:55 AM on July 30, 2009 [13 favorites]


I still find it weird that both the picture owner and Jessamyn and the commenters here frame this as "Well done Flickr" and not "Well done Michael".

I don't think it's strange to credit the medium in this case. Without Flickr, it's quite likely that there would be no way for Michael Spurlock to make the suggestion. On the other hand, if Michael Spurlock hadn't made the connection, it's quite likely someone else would have.

We are giving credit to Flickr in this case because it's showing its strength as a tool for individual and collective historical inquiry.
posted by muddgirl at 6:21 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but what gauge was that iron rod?

Sorry.
posted by bwg at 6:26 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you dive into the links, they say that Gage traveled around New England after the accident "exhibiting himself and his tamping iron". It's likely that this image is from that period in his life, so it stands to reason he would be holding it.

I think that's more likely than this being a hoax.
posted by Jugwine at 6:28 AM on July 30, 2009


Glad, upon checking in, to find I'm not the only one who thought "ooh! he's cute!"
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:34 AM on July 30, 2009


I had a little mystery solved by the 'Astonishing Power of Flickr' too. I found a bag a negatives at a thrift store that appeared to have images from a Vietnam war protest on the UNC campus. I scanned and posted them, and one of the people pictured somehow came across them and commented on one of the photos. We later got in touch directly, and the negatives are now safely archived in the UNC library. It was a real intriguing series of events, and extremely satisfying to solve.

Here's the set of images I posted: http://www.flickr.com/photos/l-dogg/sets/72157603931486587/ In the comments you can see how it unfolded.
posted by statolith at 6:35 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


...who the hell uses a pointy iron spike to tamp down gunpowder?! The point is aimed right at him too? What were they thinking?

Did they also have shovels and pick axes with handles made out of live, poisonous snakes?


Men were men back in the day....
posted by Floydd at 6:37 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Phineas Gage walks into a bar ...
posted by lukemeister at 6:39 AM on July 30, 2009 [16 favorites]


Not quite as cool as uncovering a medical chimera, but a man in South Dakota identified a painting his uncle had done on a motorcycle tank I bought from Texas.

Things like this prove the hive-mind of the internet is impressive, and I need to be reminded of that on occasion...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:39 AM on July 30, 2009


Not only is this an amazing find, and an amazing story, but this post should be THE case study in how to write an effective FPP. Leave it to a librarian to show us all how to do it up right. Jessamyn, you are the shiznit.
posted by JeffK at 6:42 AM on July 30, 2009


Phanx: is it a fake?

The (weeks old) discussion over at BoingBoing includes an anonymous posting with verifiable evidence that the photo is legit. The poster says the markings on the rod that are visible in the photo are present on the real artifact currently residing at Harvard's Countway Medical Library. (not currently open to the public, but I'm sure a local MeFi-er could check for us, if anyone cares enough to. They also think he was handsome.
posted by dylanjames at 7:15 AM on July 30, 2009


"but a man in South Dakota identified a painting his uncle had done on a motorcycle tank I bought from Texas"

Oh dang! I thought the link was going to take me to the story of a combat artist who painted images of sexy young women on the noses of these.
posted by Mike D at 7:24 AM on July 30, 2009


I tend to side with those who argue those things many take for a 'soul' are, like consciousness itself, a product of the complexity of the brain. Mr. Gauge makes a good argument for that, even if the more hysterical anecdotes about his change in personality aren't true.

Also, thanks for the book recommendation, CRM114.
posted by Pragmatica at 7:59 AM on July 30, 2009


I still find it weird that both the picture owner and Jessamyn and the commenters here frame this as "Well done Flickr" and not "Well done Michael".

I found his name and would have been all set to totally put the guy's name all over everything except it seems like that's not the way he's going with this. His Flickr profile doesn't have any mention of it, he's on facebook but doesn't have a public profile, he doesn't appear to have a web page, not one that's Googleable. I'm a little surprised that the photo owners didn't give him a little more credit, but they do mention his name. The Flickr angle is mostly the whole idea that if you get 100 or 1000 or 10000 people looking at something, you maximise the possbility that someone who knows what a picture is about will cross paths with the people owning the picture and that's sort of awesome.

I wouldn't be surprised at all if, once it's known what PG looks like, they find more pictures of him that aren't quite as obvious [this one was posted with the tamping rod that has specific inscriptions so ID was a shoo-in once they knew what to look for] since he did travel or exhibit with Barnum.

Is it just me or did people look kinda crazy/obsessed back then?

Long exposures made people have to have a facial expression that was sort of fixable and most went for the stony stare. Add to that that people often blink during these exposures and it gives the eyes a weird ghostly quality that adds to the weirdy effect. Photos were serious business (for a while quite expensive, it totally breaks my heart to see these "family photos" after a loved one passed away that are the surviving members posed with their one photo of the deceased. I can't imagine what it would be like for me to go through life with only one photo, or no photos, of my loved ones) and you see that reflected in how the subjects behave often.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 AM on July 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


Thanks - so the inscriptions settle it.
posted by Phanx at 8:14 AM on July 30, 2009


Without Flickr, it's quite likely that there would be no way for Michael Spurlock to make the suggestion.

So without Flickr this photo never would have been identified? Do you mean that if the photo had been posted to one of the many, many other photo hosting sites it never would have been identified?

On the other hand, if Michael Spurlock hadn't made the connection, it's quite likely someone else would have.

One could make the same argument about every invention or discovery in history, big or little. If Newton/Leibniz hadn't invented calculus someone else would have. If Einstein hadn't formulated the theory of relativity someone else would have. If Columbus hadn't sailed across the Atlantic someone else would have. And so on. And while, probably true, it doesn't in any way diminish their achievements.
posted by euphorb at 8:14 AM on July 30, 2009


Duly noted. I shall remain in Vermont, and avoid California.
posted by maniabug at 8:15 AM on July 30, 2009


Comment from Spurlock in the BB thread as well.
posted by jessamyn at 9:33 AM on July 30, 2009


The thing I can't get over is Chile. I mean, Chile? How did a presumably not particularly wealthy individual get from Vermont to Chile in the 1850s? I would think it's a pretty uncommon and difficult trip even today; back then it must have been absolutely horrific. It just seems so random.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:35 AM on July 30, 2009


A Metafilter user wrote:

The Flickr angle is mostly the whole idea that if you get 100 or 1000 or 10000 people looking at something, you maximise the possbility that someone who knows what a picture is about will cross paths with the people owning the picture and that's sort of awesome.

I kind of agree, but I'm surprised this angle is still considered so interesting after the years of similar stories since the internet became mainstream. I'd have hoped the novelty would have worn off enough by now we could be writing about things that happen online as encounters between people.
posted by cillit bang at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2009


How did a presumably not particularly wealthy individual get from Vermont to Chile in the 1850s?

Valparaiso, Chile, is one of the largest seaports on the West Coast of South America, and it was a regular stop on the sailing routes between the East and West coasts of the states. It may be an uncommon trip nowadays, but in 1850 a stopover in Valparaiso was probably as common as a layover at O'Hare airport is today.
posted by gyusan at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


I bet the tool was multi-purpose. Maybe to be used as a pick or pry bar.
posted by digsrus


Fair enough. I'm going to go brush my teeth with a motorcycle now.
posted by orme at 10:08 AM on July 30, 2009


It gives me such a happy when the Internet does something positive and as intended! Real, useful cooperation - yay!
posted by medea42 at 10:10 AM on July 30, 2009


I'm surprised this angle is still considered so interesting after the years of similar stories since the internet became mainstream. I'd have hoped the novelty would have worn off enough by now we could be writing about things that happen online as encounters between people.

I come at this from a rural region where people are not just technologically unsavvy, many are actively technologically averse. In some ways these people lose money daily because they can't do things like email instead of call/write, shop online instead of drive an hour to Staples, sell the crap that is moldering in their barns. It's important to find ways to make this sort of connectivity and conenctions -- stuff that is old hat to you and me -- relevant to them and interesting.

Big cultural institutions putting their stuff online is part of it. When the Library of Congress and the President of the US are online you can't say that it's just something that's "trendy" anymore. Having success stories like this one (useful to me because it happened in the same boonies that I happen to live in) is also neat. People like to know that there's a place they can go in this online "place" they hear about and learn about things that interest them. They think it's all iPhones and LOLcats and people trying to sell you things.

So while I totally agree that I wish Spurlock had a website of any kind so that he could be more properly credited with this discovery, Flickr does have a website and these little "Aha!" things happen often there -- with other people who are not Spurlock and who are not the Wilguses -- and that's notable in and of itself. Cultural institutions like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian regularly attribute the hive mind effect of Flickr with helping them solve ID conundrums and getting better metadata for their collections. All that metadata belongs to everyone, it's shared knowledge which is not only a joy for me as a librarian, but good for explaining to people who like history but don't know how they'd go "do history on the web." I'd be interested to know if there's any other community photo site, in this country or any other, that has that sort of cachet and reputation. If there is, I don't know about it.
posted by jessamyn at 10:34 AM on July 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


When I read the story of Phineas Gage, I thought the spike in question was something kinda small and thin. A reasonable assumption given that he lived despite the quality of medical care at the time. That foto disabuses of that notion though, as it's clearly he really took a whopper.

I actually had a head-meet-spike accident as a child, but thankfully came away with a graze and nothing more. The only change in my personality is that I became averse to being around lads playing 'javelin' with fence spikes.
posted by Sova at 10:56 AM on July 30, 2009


I freaked a little when this story came out. I'd just finished shooting my first short film: the story of Phineas Gage. I'm editing now.

We had a blacksmith create our prop tamping iron using the exact dimensions of the original and let me tell you, once you've got that thing in your hands it's impossible to believe anyone could survive having it shot through his head. Thirteen and a half pounds is Heavy.

As for the 'posed' aspect of the photo -- there's reason to believe Phineas worked briefly for P.T. Barnum and sideshow acts would occasionally sell photographs as mementos to earn extra cash. I've seen many sideshow daguerreotypes. Not exactly sure of the process for copying them for distribution back then, but perhaps this could be a master for such a trinket? (Though you'd guess others would have popped up before now...)

Great post, jessamyn!
posted by rough at 11:27 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


who the hell uses a pointy iron spike to tamp down gunpowder

Seriously, especially considering the tool they use to hammer the spike down is a big chunk of flint stone. Still better than their first tool design, which was to pack the powder down with a flaming torch.

Phineas Gage walks into a bar...

Actually, I think it's "A bar walks into Phineas Gage..."
posted by FatherDagon at 12:12 PM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Did they also have shovels and pick axes with handles made out of live, poisonous snakes?

It's like you were there!
posted by owtytrof at 1:02 PM on July 30, 2009


Great post, and that's fair dinkum!
posted by not_on_display at 1:54 PM on July 30, 2009


"If there was a good picture of Gage in existence - and this looks like a celebrity picture, designed for wide distribution - it's surprising it never came up before."

Well, there is some faulty logic here.


I beg to differ, Henry C. Mabuse, despite your well-reasoned argument. In the era before mass communications, it was quite common for things such as photographs by themselves to circulate widely. Also, without even looking up whether he did or not, Gage could quite likely have eked out a small living for himself either selling pamphlets of his experience, or going on the lecture circuit -- even as a bit of a freak show (and I see Barnum is mentioned). I think the original speculation is valid.

That is not to say that your analysis of the actual photo is not also valid.
posted by dhartung at 2:50 PM on July 30, 2009


So without Flickr this photo never would have been identified? Do you mean that if the photo had been posted to one of the many, many other photo hosting sites it never would have been identified?

euphorb: I think there are two ways to look at this:
1) Flickr the technology- There is nothing that Flickr does that isn't duplicated by many other sites.
2) Flickr the community- I would argue that without Flickr's large user community, it's unlikely that someone would stumble across the picture and identify it. Joe Amateur Genealogist-Historian in Random Suburb, IL doesn't keep up with Lifehacker to identify the Web 2.4 photo sharing site du jour. There really isn't a good way (AFAIK) to browse for new uploads of photos tagged daguerreotype across many photo sharing sites (A Google Image Search for "One-eyed man harpoon" woould be problematic, Safe Search or not.) The community is one of the things that makes flickr valuable. Of course, that's not to deny the importance of technology, especially when users can migrate to other sites with little effort. If Flickr was horribly slow (Friendster) or had a horrible UI/spam problem (MySpace) it could easily be supplanted (Facebook.)
posted by theclaw at 8:13 PM on July 30, 2009


I was nose to nose with that skull just last week, as part of a nice private tour for our professional group, led by the museum's sole curator!

The other 99% of the museum was even more interesting. It's inside the Harvard Medical Library -- if you're in Boston, go!
posted by intermod at 8:54 PM on July 30, 2009


Seconded. I've been and it was very interesting. Unfortunately it's only open Monday-Friday, 9AM-5PM. But it's worth taking an afternoon off to check it out.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:09 PM on July 30, 2009


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