Sunday, June 09, 2002

Hole in the head quite a tale

Writer recounts fascinating story in kids' book

By Jim Knippenberg,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        John Fleischman's friends thought he was crazy:

        “They all said, "You're writing a kids book about a guy who had a 13-pound iron rod driven through his skull? You gotta be kidding.' ”

        He wasn't. Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science (Houghton Mifflin; $16) has been around since late March and is creating a stir among a heck of a lot more people than just his friends.

[photo] John Fleischman first wrote about Phineas Gage in 1998
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        Stirs like this:

        • Kirkus Reviews, one of the bibles of the industry, raved on and gave it a starred review. The star means most school libraries will purchase it.

        • Discover Magazine doesn't use stars, but it doled out plenty of praise: “John Fleischman weaves fascinating science into a stylish narrative that is likely to pique the curiosity of adults, too.”

        Here's the story: Sept. 13, 1848, wasn't a good day for Phineas. The cordial, well-liked railroad foreman was working with gunpowder at a blasting site, packing it with his tamping rod — a 3-foot, 7-inch, 13-pound iron bar.

        Then he dropped the rod. It hit a rock and sparked, setting off a whopper of an explosion that drove the rod straight through Gage's skull. He never lost consciousness, and lived 11 more years with a hole in his head. Literally.

        Today, Gage's skull resides at Harvard Medical School and is still studied by baffled researchers.

        “It is a gruesome story, isn't it? I know I blanched when I first saw the cover. But gruesome things happen to people.

        “I talk to a lot of school groups, sixth- and seventh-graders are my target audience, and I always call it the "yuk factor.'

        “But I figured all along that there'd be interest in it. Maybe not as much as I'm actually seeing, but interest for sure.

        “When Phineas' skull was exhibited in New England on the 150th anniversary of the accident, I remember kids lined up all over the place to see it.

        “My only concern with the book was that I had never written for children.”

        But he jumped in, and now he's finding adults reading it along with the kids.

        Oh, and he wants to make one thing clear: He is not one of Cincinnati's famous and wealthy Fleischmann clan: “They have a double "n' at the end, I only have one. Many, many years ago, our ancestors came from the same place in central Europe, so we're probably distantly related. But not close enough for me to inherit.”

Familiar byline

        Cincinnati has been reading Mr. Fleischman for a long time. Born in New York, the 53-year-old downtown resident, married and father of two adult kids, moved here in 1979 as Ohio Magazine's Cincinnati bureau chief (“the bureau was actually my bedroom”), climbed to the rank of senior editor and stayed until 1995 when he was downsized out of a job.

        He went from there to Yankee Magazine, lived in rural New Hampshire and “hated living in the woods and only being able to see lights from one other house flickering far away.”

        He was downsized again and this time took a job at Harvard Medical School “translating medical stories into English even though I have no background in science. As a general journalist, I just keep asking questions until I understand.”

        He's still with Harvard, writing speeches for the president and items for Harvard Health Newsletter in between duties as science writer for the Maryland-based American Society for Cell Biology and in between still more duties as a freelancer for Smithsonian, Atlantic, Discover and Parents magazines.

        “With computers and the Internet, I can work just about anywhere. Do you realize this is the third time we've moved here? Once from California, once from Boston, another time from New England. This time I think we'll stay.

        “My wife wanted to come back really bad, and I've loved the area ever since my days as a student at Antioch College.”

Personality changes

        It was during his stint in New Hampshire that he got to know Phineas, first when he wrote a 1998 story about him for Yankee, later when he was at Harvard and would occasionally visit what's left of Phineas.

        Science's ongoing fascination with Phineas has to do more with his personality than the hole in his head. Before the accident he was a pleasant, dependable soul. But the rod changed things: He became unpleasant to most everyone: profane and unpredictable.

        His case eventually led to some of the first insights into the relationship between personality and the brain's frontal cortex. Scientists today theorize that the rod damaged his ventromedial region, the area believed to regulate moods and an assortment of cognitive functions.

        “That's something I'd like to ask Phineas about if I could: Did he know he changed? Did he understand what happened to him? It's one of the things school groups ask me, and I frankly don't know. I'd also like to ask him if it changed his ability to learn. During his time in South America (after the accident), could he learn Spanish?

        “And I'd like to ask if he really exhibited himself at P.T. Barnum's American Museum? His mother said he did, but there are no records. I'd like to know what that was like.”

        So now Mr. Fleischman's off to his next project. It's a whole lot less gruesome and a whole lot more local than Phineas' story.

        “I'm working on a book for the Cincinnati Public Library's 150th birthday in 2003. In fact, I should be home working on it right now. The publisher (Orange Frazer) wants it out in the fall of this year.

        “But I'm really loving the project because the library has such an amazing history. It's been going since March 14, 1853, and a lot happened in those years.”

        Maybe as much as happened to Phineas, just not as bizarre.


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