Guinea Pig Zero: edited by Robert Helms, 245 pgs. By Sean Carswell

Apr 13, 2011

Guinea Pig Zero really took me by surprise. It’s a collection of essays and stories about human research subjects, and it covers their experiences selling themselves for medical research studies. Generally, when you think of someone selling himself to science, you think of guys spending two hours in a plasma clinic so they can earn fifteen bucks to get drunk on, or something like that. Editor Robert Helms does everything he can to dispel that stereotype. He writes a series of essays that detail his own experience as a human guinea pig, and in his essays, he comes across as an articulate, thoughtful guy who’s basically selling his meat both so that he won’t have to work a full time job and so that he can help doctors heal people.

The book begins with a series of “report cards,” in which he evaluates different research facilities, and how well they treat their guinea pigs. It’s a strange way to start the book because most readers may feel like, if they have no intention of becoming a guinea pig themselves, the report cards will do them no good. Actually, the report cards paint a vivid picture of the inside life of a guinea pig. You get to understand what they do and how they do it, what the ups and downs of this way of life are. From there, the book moves on to several different stories from the inside of research units. All of these stories aren’t written by Helms. He gets help from various contributors, who also tend to come across as articulate and thoughtful. Even so, I found myself looking forward most to Helms’s stories – mostly because he initially establishes the tone and the feel of the book, and other stories tend to deviate from that. Regardless, these stories from the inside make up the first third of the book.

From there, Helms moves on to discussing guinea pigs in history. He writes an excellent essay on Guernica and how different battles in World War II were little more than deadly warfare experiments on human subjects. He also writes an incredibly interesting essay about a man named Alexis St. Martin, a nineteenth century fur trapper who was accidentally shot. Following the shooting, a nearby doctor saved St. Martin’s life, but wasn’t able to sew up a small part of St. Martin’s stomach. The doctor remedied this stomach hole by essentially putting a cork in it, then continuing to use the hole in St. Martin’s stomach to perform experiments on his digestive system. After some time, it became clear that the stomach hole could be sewn up, but the doctor chose not to heal St. Martin, and instead used him as a lifelong guinea pig. And the histories continue. There’s an excellent essay by a woman named Beth Lavoie on how the US military used US soldiers as guinea pigs in the Gulf War, essentially injecting them with a variety of toxins that later led to Gulf War Syndrome. There’s also a sad but well written essay by a man named Paul Gelsinger, in which Gelsinger tells the story of how his son’s life was taken by negligent research doctors. The book wraps up with some fiction and poetry by and about guinea pigs. The best part of this section is a creative non-fiction piece by Helms in which he discusses his time hanging out with lepers in India.

On the whole, Guinea Pig Zero does go a long way to dispel the stereotypes about human research subjects. It gives insight into a world that I otherwise would know little about. And, though the various essays in this book tackle some pretty heavy subjects, the writers maintain a down-to-earth tone. They really go out of their way to explain the things that a stranger to the world of medical studies wouldn’t understand or know about. They tend to write in a very simple matter, but discuss things that are anything but simple. I really recommend this book. –Sean Carswell (Garrett CountyPress, 828 Royal St. #248, New Orleans, LA70116)

Thankful Bits is supported and made possible, in part, by grants from the following organizations.
Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of our grantors.