An amazing Flickr success story: “maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.”

This terrific story has been kicking around the Web for a while, but I thought maybe not everyone had heard about it yet. The story begins with Jack and Beverly Wilgus, photography collectors, who acquired an unusual dageurreotype over thirty years ago. Under the username photo_history they posted images from their collections on Flickr. In December 2007, shortly after they began posting their images, they shared one which they gave the title “Daguerreotype – One Eyed Man with Harpoon.” I’ll let them pick up the rest of the story:

There was some discussion with members of the Whaling group about the identification of the rod he is holding. It was decided that it was not likely a harpoon. What was it?

In December 2008 there was a post that sent us off in a new direction. A flickr member posted a comment “maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.” A quick Google introduced us to the bizarre life of Phineas Gage and we were hooked.

Over the last six months we have read, researched, made road trips, and contacts we never dreamed of. We have been to the Warren Anatomical Museum at the Harvard Medical School in Boston to see Gage’s life mask, skull, and tamping iron. We have been to Cavendish, VT where Gage met with his fateful accident. We have corresponded and collaborated with the world’s leading authority on Gage. Amazingly we have also written an article that will be published in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences in August, 2009. We also have posted a web site Meet Phineas Gage.

It’s a fantastic story, and as good an example as I’ve found of the power Flickr has to connect people with images to people interested to helping learn more about those images. Not every archives will end up with results as dramatic as the Wilguses, but if you don’t share your images, you have very little chance of making identifications like this one. The world can now see the face of Phineas Gage, thanks to people willing to share their images, people willing to share their knowledge, and a service that brought them together.

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2 Responses to An amazing Flickr success story: “maybe you found a photo of Phineas Gage? If so, it would be the only one known.”

  1. Heather says:

    Hey, Jessamyn West just posted about this on MeFi as well: http://www.metafilter.com/83694/

    Such an interesting story.

  2. Michael Spurlock says:

    As great as it is that the internet is making new historical discoveries like this possible, what would be even better is if this discovery leads to even more being learned about Phineas.
    He’s such an enigmatic character. Knowing what he looked like just adds to the questions. I mean, I knew in my gut that it was him, but the image didn’t fit the traditional account of his life. Here’s hoping they can find out more about the image’s origins.

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