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Faculty Spotlight: Claire Bubb

By cc148@nyu.edu
05/24/2017

Galen of Pergamon, the most famous doctor we know of from the Roman Imperial period, was something of a showman. In his early career in Rome in the second century AD, he performed public dissections repeatedly, sometimes with an eye towards making them as astonishing and amazing to his spectators as possible. His signature performance was to ligature the nerves controlling the intercostal muscles of a live pig, resulting in the instant, seemingly magical silencing of the animal, followed by the untying of the ligatures, miraculously restoring its lost voice. Thus, he contrived both to teach a cutting-edge and controversial anatomical lesson and also to afford his spectators with an interlude of entertainment, containing respectably erudite content delightfully tinged with arena-worthy gore. To similar effect, in what was essentially his first job interview, he slit open the belly of a monkey and challenged his rival candidates to suture it cleanly before the monkey died; needless to say, he got the job.

This semester I have been using a combination of literary and epigraphic sources to flesh out the context within which Galen was performing these fleshy feats of professional-display-cum-entertainment. There was a long tradition of oral public performance among doctors dating all the way back to the Hippocratic period, but it is more difficult to tease out the origins of the kinds of hands-on performance that Galen records himself and others performing routinely. Through thorough analysis of what evidence we have, I am arguing that the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries AD was a place uniquely suited to foster this kind of blurring of boundaries between science and spectacle, professional activity and showmanship, and medicine and entertainment.

Faculty Spotlight: Claire Bubb

Detail of the titlepage of Junta Galen (1565). Wellcome Library, London.