A rubber pig, a pen knife and some red cotton…making Galen interesting

As you may tell if you’ve read my previous posts I am on a bit of a mission this year to make my GCSE History lessons interesting again and in particular to make my history of medicine lessons good.

Now I’ve taught about Galen for a few years and every year I’ve managed to make it boring as sin. So moving away from the textbook I did my background reading and found out Galen is incredibly interesting, it was just my rubbish teaching making him so boring. So now I needed to plan something that might get across some of this historical fun. Here’s what you will need and what I did:

  • A rubber pig toy – preferably with a squeeker
  • A load of red cotton thread
  • Some felt – assorted colours
  • A pen knife

Why the pig I hear you ask? Well Galen’s most famous experiment was with a pig. When Roman doctors questioned his understanding of anatomy and his genius he performed a party trick. Tying down a squealing pig to his table he isolated the nerve connecting the brain to the larynx and cut it, thus making the pig produce no sound and in doing so proving the control of the brain over our bodily functions. I knew a little of this but reading more about his experiments the more I found it interesting. Hence I decided I would do a live dissection in class. Using the felt I made some simple organs (with guidance!). I then cut open the rubber pig and plonked them inside with a load of loose thread to act as nerves, gluing the whole thing back together so it still squealed and I could cut it in class! But the pig comes back later in the story.

I like narrative history and I like spinning a yarn. So in this lesson I decided I would do the majority of it as a story time / circle time. I produced a PPT full of images and wrote down my notes about stories in Galen’s life. Then before the lesson I arranged all the chairs in a half moon around the IWB. Then for the first half of the lesson I delivered a story about Galen the greatest doctor of the ancient world with lots of questioning and hypothesising about where the story might go next. Here’s some of the tidbits I used:

  • Galen chose a career as a doctor as his father had a dream where Asclepius told him that his son would be a doctor
  • Galen worked at the Asclepion in Pergamon
  • Galen’s father died when he was 19 making him super rich and allowing him to travel the known world
  • Galen worked for three Roman emperors
  • Galen called gladiator wounds “windows into the body”

When I got to the part where he arrived in Rome and some of the doctors questioned his genius I moved over to a table where my raincoat had been covering the contents. Removing the coat I revealed my pre-prepared piggy strapped down a la Galen. Then I did a lot of ‘shall I cut it?’ before hacking it open and cutting up the nerves and pulling out organs. The squeaker added extra fun as the pig squealed in pain.

After this I gave the students the images from the PPT and got them to retell the story in their own words, focusing on why each part of the story made him a better doctor. Ending the lesson on an exam question (‘Explain why Galen was such an important doctor’) the students showed how much they had learnt which was tons – win.

This lesson was silly and took tons of effort. I would never do this all the time, but it was fun to prove to myself that I can make a subject I had previously thought boring engaging and full of learning.

I suppose you want to see the pig. Well here it is:


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2 Responses to A rubber pig, a pen knife and some red cotton…making Galen interesting

  1. dmfdmh says:

    I think this is a great idea – and the fact that at the heart of it is the notion of history as narrative. I like the idea of engaging students in the story of Galen and the pig – a way of making what might seem very distant immediately accessible – particularly as the pig had squeak as well – might have made a lot of difference if it had not.

    Just one question what happens when a history teacher cannot tell the story well?

  2. Pingback: Having fun with a pig: Making Galen memorable » Thinking History

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