Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Havey-cavey

There is no clear and rational sense in which my life would be improved by the addition of a guinea pig, but I must confess that I had several moments over the weekend where I felt a sharp pang of longing for one of these little creatures, they are so lovely and placid and sleek and plump--the short-haired ones are particularly dear to my heart, I think they are aesthetically preferable to the fluffy ones....

(Good Wikipedia entry!)

(A number of other guinea pigs passed through my life during the years of childhood, but the two that were particularly important to me were a delightfully sleek and solid brown-and-white short-haired guinea pig called Linda, when I was five or so, and then a few years later a fluffy black one called--inevitably--Fluffy. I regret to say that to the best of my knowledge, both names were chosen by me--and properly speaking, the spelling should have been "Lynda," because I am thinking that this was my inspiration. More pictures here--although they now look very dated, I suspect that I am not alone in retaining from my 1970s childhood an implicit notion of Wonder Woman as the pinnacle of female beauty! Sort of hybridized, a few years later on, with Erin Gray in Buck Rogers!)

All of this thinking was prompted by the absolutely enchanting chapter on guinea pigs in Jim Endersby's A Guinea Pig's History of Biology: The plants and animals who taught us the facts of life.

On which note, courtesy of Endersby's book, a list of delightful guinea-pig-related facts:

In 1664, the natural philosopher Henry Power described the cheese mites he spotted under his microscope as looking "like so many Ginny-Piggs, munching and chewing the cud"

The fashionable ladies at the court of Elizabeth I were often followed by servants who carried a pet guinea pig on a silk pillow

George Eliot describes a character in Daniel Deronda as having "a pair of glistening eyes that suggested a miraculous guinea-pig"

The US Department of Agriculture, established by Lincoln in 1862, soon had a "substantial colony" of guinea pigs that were used to test vaccines, a colony that in the early twentieth century became the means of conducting extensive experiments on inbreeding in which brother and sister guinea pigs were crossed for more than two dozen generations

J.B.S. Haldane and his sister Naomi Mitchison bred guinea pigs as children so that they could (in Mitchison's later account) "try out what was then called Mendelism on them":
One of JBS's friends remembered that in 1908 the lawn of the Haldanes' house was entirely free from the usual upper-class clutter of croquet hoops and tennis nets; instead, 'behind the wire fencing, were 300 guinea-pigs. . . . 'The guinea pigs were a mine of information,' Naomi recalled, 'we had to arrange marriages, which sometimes went against the apparent inclinations of the partners, though I rather enjoyed exercising power over them.'
(This era came to an end when one of J.B.S.'s school friends let his fox terrier crawl over the front gate...)

Geneticist Sewall Wright was absolutely devoted to guinea pigs, though he also worked with Drosophila, and it was this quotation that most vividly brought back to me the satisfying heft of a guinea pig in one's hands:
Despite the necessity of using Drosophila in experiments, Wright would bring guinea pigs into the classroom whenever he could justify doing so; on one occasion he brought one in to show his class some interesting variations in its coat colour. 'This particular guinea pig was somewhat more fractious than usual and was scurrying around on the desk and was not about to be quiet,' a student recalled, so Wright picked up the restless cavy and tucked it under his armpit, where he usually kept his blackboard eraser. A few minutes later, running out of space for the next equation, he reached for his eraser 'and started to erase the blackboard with a squeaking guinea pig'.

7 comments:

  1. My colleague Henry Gee has some wonderful posts about guinea pigs on his blog The End of the Pier Show. One is here:
    http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/henrygee/2007/12/07/ideas-for-making-my-fortune-14

    keying-in "guinea pig" into the search window brings up others. Lovely.

    Nothing could beat that story about the blackboard eraser, though! I write as a guinea-pig lover: I kept many and varied when young.

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  2. I have heard that the people of Peru are very fond of eating guinea pigs.

    I also found transcribed in a 17thC family commonplace book a list of purchases and expenses for a sixteenth-century feast for the Duke of Norfolk that included "2 Guinea Pigges."

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  3. We have three guinea pigs, who are much loved.

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  4. Emily do you have more details on the sixteenth-century feast and the book you read it in for us? I'm tracking the earliest uses of the term guinea pig. Perhaps this one you've read predates the 1664 Experimental Philosophy usage by Henry Power quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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