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  • 18 May 2007

A guinea pig’s tale and other stories of biology


While great scientists have been revered and remembered for their discoveries, the role played by the plants and animals that helped them on their journey to greatness has rarely been celebrated.

University of Sussex science historian Dr Jim Endersby now pays tribute to some of these classic laboratory organisms in his first award-winning book, A Guinea Pig's History of Biology.

In a down-to-earth and engaging style, Dr Endersby recounts the individual stories of how guinea pigs, fruit flies, evening primroses and many other common species have aided and advanced our understanding of mysteries such as genetics.

"Biology is currently one of the world's most exciting sciences, promising everything from better foods and cures for common diseases, to the most alarming prospect that genetic engineering could allow us to redesign life itself," writes Dr Endersby. "Examining the organisms that have made all this possible gives us a different understanding of how we got here and perhaps new ways of thinking about where we might be going. Instead of a story in which great scientists have great ideas, the story of passionflowers and hawkweeds, of zebra fish and viruses allows us to understand the different kinds of work that make science possible."

The great scientists do get mentioned, but as characters in the organisms' stories. Dr Endersby devotes a chapter to the darling of the early biologists, the guinea pig, a docile domestic pet that helped Robert Koch identify cholera-causing microbes and tuberculosis, and contributed to the discovery of Vitamin C. Another chapter on passionflowers describes the cross-pollination work Darwin carried out in his quest to find out the effects of inbreeding (and whether his decision to marry his cousin would have harmed their children).

Dr Endersby, who decided against a career in biological research because he could not stomach animal dissection, also examines the vivisection debate and concludes: "Those who claim that all animal experimentation is unnecessary are probably mistaken; if researchers could stop using mice, they would already have done so."

A Guinea Pig's History of Biology, winner of the £10,000 Jerwood Award for non-fiction in progress, is published by William Heinemann, on 24 May. Price £20.

Notes for editors

For more information, please contact the University of Sussex Press Officers, Jacqui Bealing or Maggie Clune, Tel: 01273 678888, Email: press@sussex.ac.uk

 

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