The rise of a science icon: the Guinea pig

1 October 2016

Guinea pigs have long been synonymous with ‘test subjects’ – and that’s no coincidence! The chubby rodents have been used in medical experiments since the late 1800s, and have contributed to various scientific breakthroughs ever since.

The discovery of adrenaline? Guinea pigs. The discovery of vitamin C? Guinea pigs (which can’t produce it themselves, just like humans). The development of antibiotics, asthma medicines, artificial heart valves? You get the picture…

All beginnings are difficult
The furry creature’s rise to fame had a bumpy start, though. In 1890, Robert Koch, a German country doctor, announced he’d found a cure for the most pressing medical issue of the time:
tuberculosis. His test subjects? You guessed it again: guinea pigs. However, when Koch’s first attempts failed to translate into a vaccine, his favorite test animal became an unflattering metaphor for the difficulties of medical research.

From zero to hero
Guinea pigs wouldn’t gain a more winning reputation until after WW2, when English ecologist Kenneth Mellanby wrote ‘Human Guinea Pigs’. The booklet’s title refers to the willing test subjects who helped reveal the cause of scabies transmission among soldiers – keeping many brave men out
of the hospital. Talk about a hero story!

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LOST IN TRANSLATION?
Conejillo de indias. Cobaye. モルモット (morumotto). From Spanish and French to Japanese, the guinea pig metaphor is present in many languages. Yet, their linguistic reign is far from undisputed. They have to compete  with ‘test rabbits’ in Dutch (proefkonijn), Germa (Versuchskaninchen) and Finnish (koekaniini). Meanwhile, the Hungarian language (подопытный кролик) seems to go for ‘test mice’, probably due to the rise of rat and mouse research between the 1930s and 1960s.


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