3D Printing in English Class: Phineas Gage

UPDATE: Shawn has created a remixed the Phineas Gage model to feature a removable rod.


Phineas Gage was a railroad worker living in 1848 in Cavendish, Vermont. One September afternoon, Phineas got distracted while working with black powder. His 3 foot 7 inch tamping iron blasted through his left cheek, through his brain, and out the top of his skull. It landed about 30 or so feet away with a clang.

And those of you who don’t know the story of Phineas Gage, would think the story ends there, yes? Because… well, how could it not?

A few minutes later, Phineas Gage STANDS UP, and begins to walk around. He lives about 11 years after the accident, and is one of the most famous case studies in neuroscience. In Harry Potter terms, he was The Man Who Lived.

But at what cost? You see, the tamping iron passed through his frontal lobe (which is responsible for impulse control, personality and more, but not functions of life). He became increasingly aggressive, irritable, and short-tempered. It did not end his life, but the event changed his personality, completely and forever.

WOW! What a great story, right? The details of his life and accident are fascinating, not only for…well, anyone — but certainly also for 8th grade students required to read some extended non-fiction at some point during the school year. Hmmm, will 14 year olds be more interested in more about George Washington, or a guy whose doctor wrote:

“…and out leaked several tea-cups full of brain”
-Dr. John Martyn Harlow

Amazon.com: Purchase the book

Phineas Gage it is! I highly recommend and use in my class an excellent book by author John Fleischmann: “Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story about Brain Science.”

While the story does enough in itself to engage students, doesn’t the great teacher always want to do more?

It’s hard to imagine really the specifics of what this looks like. Only one actual photo of Phineas exists (the one at the top of the page on the left), besides pictures of his skull. So first, I created an exact replica of his tamping iron for students to pass around and get a feel for what this might be like passing through your head.. It is 3 ft 7 inches long, about 3/4 inch at the base, coming to a tapered point.


It was made of… duct tape. Wrapped around an old golf flag. But that wasn’t enough. It never really is. I also wanted a 3D printed skull of Phineas to show students. Unfortunately, like many of you, I am not a phrenologist, and so don’t have the background to make the model myself.

I began my research last year about this time, but all I could find was a graduate paper where it was mentioned a 3D file was attached. But the paper did not – and would not – release the 3D scan of Phineas to the public.

7706183Finally, Thingiverse comes to the rescue! (As it seems to do so often). In May, a model of Phineas Gage’s skull was created and released. The model may not be exact or fit perfect to the story. Some of the angles look to be just slightly off true-to-life.

But the coolness factor is achieved 1,000 fold — it includes the tamping iron in the print, physically GOING THROUGH HIS HEAD!

You can see that in the model the tamping iron goes below the print bed. So, to print, the first thing I had to do was use some software to cut the model at the bottom of the bed, shortening the tamping iron a bit.

Additionally, the original model is HUGE. It might be the actual size of a head. We use a Printrbot Metal Simple, so that wouldn’t work. Make sure to scale down the model to a size that works for you.


The model is quite hollow as a real skull, so it only sits on the bed by the chin and back round edge of the skull. The first time I attempted to print, it fell off.

Make sure to add a brim. I used 4 or 5 mm to make sure there was a nice wide place for it to sit. I printed at .2 layers for a fine sleek look.

And that’s it! On the second attempt, about 11 or 12 hours later, it worked beautifully. No support needed.

A few of the teeth in the back got a little messy because they are sort of small, but that’s ok! In a Phineas Gage-like level of coincidence, the real Phineas also lost his back left molars (albeit, not due to printer calibration– but of course due to a massive metal object obliterating them completely).

The students absolutely LOVED the print. You could hear the “oohs” and “aaaahs” as I passed it around the room (with a plea: “please, dear God be careful with this!”).

The kinesthetic educational appeal is apparent, and the students were able to see and touch something in real life that before, they could have only imagined.




Scott Dellosso is an English teacher who loves to incorporate making into his English class. You can follow him on Twitter @scott_dellosso or catch his new blog at dellosso.weebly.com

You Might Also Like