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BMJ. 2007 May 12; 334(7601): 986.
PMCID: PMC1867872

Bitten by a mouse

H V Wyatt, visiting lecturer in philosophy, University of Leeds, Leeds

Immunology is not an easy subject—it is complicated, and students soon lose interest. Lecturers can see the enthusiasm fading away and seek to enliven their lectures. I was intrigued by a well known US bacteriologist of the 1930s who had apparently solved the difficulty of keeping his students' attention when talking about complement—a complicated topic of little interest to them. He would enter the lecture theatre carrying all the apparatus of an experiment—a rack of test-tubes, various vials of liquids, syringes and needles, pipettes, and a cage of mice (or so I was told). He would give his lecture while carrying out dilutions of substances in the tubes, mixing them, preparing the mice for injection, etc. The students were fascinated, for he did not explain what he was doing except in a general way. This kept the students' attention, but he carefully spaced the manipulations to last the lecture: he never had time to inject the mice.

I too had problems with immunology, the students never understood the complement fixation test and I could see their attention wandering. For my lecture I decided one year to follow the example of that US professor to keep the students' attention. I prepared the racks, the test-tubes, pipettes, syringes, needles, etc, and I borrowed the mice from the animal house. All went well, and I felt that at last I had captured the students' attention. Alas, as I reached the climax of the lecture and reached into a mouse cage, I was undone. The mouse must have been bored, for, as I caught him by the tail, he woke and nipped me. The pain certainly woke me, but I managed to complete the demonstration and lecture and to conceal the blood seeping from my finger.

I never found out if the students detected my stratagem, but I suspect that I was the only one who learnt anything from that lecture.


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