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Lost & Found: Carl Elliott on Robert Helms

In honor of our Science Fair issue, we turn today to Carl Elliott’s Lost & Found on Guinea Pig Zero, the zine for anyone who’s ever been paid to test side effects which may include, but are not limited to, nausea, sweating, loss of hair, night terrors, hostile feelings, hallucinations, runny nose, mild to debilitating disorientation, spontaneous combustion, seizure, and death.

If you’ve ever been out of work and feeling desperate, asking yourself how you could possibly earn money with your philosophy degree or your creative writing MFA, you’ve probably wondered about those ads at the back of your local alternative weekly that say “Research Volunteers Wanted. Earn up to $7000.” The ads never say where the research studies take place, or how long they take, or even who is in charge, leaving you to wonder precisely what you must endure to earn this kind of money. What kind of drugs do they give you? Are you paid extra if they scan your brain or biopsy your liver? What exactly is it worth to let a stranger in a lab coat insert a fiber-optic cable tube into your rectum?

In May 1996, Bob Helms, a longtime study veteran and former union organizer in Philadelphia, began publishing a job zine called Guinea Pig Zero, whose subtitle was A Journal for Human Research Subjects, aimed mainly at the kind of subject who enrolled in studies for money. Guinea Pig Zero published firsthand reports on the things potential guinea pigs really wanted to know about the business of human research: how much the studies paid, how bad the food was, whether a research unit employed phlebotomists who had trouble hitting a vein. The look of the zine was rough and handmade, as if it had been stapled together with paper stolen from Kinko’s, and many issues features an actual guinea pig on the cover. The voice of the writing sounded like a cross between Emma Goldman and Robert Crumb. One early issue featured an article about donating eggs to a fertility clinic. It was titled “Cluck, Cluck, Gimme a Buck.”

When I first came across Guinea Pig Zero, I was teaching medical ethics at McGill University in Montreal. My duties included service on two local research ethics committees at teaching hospitals, where I would wade through stacks of research protocols each month to see if they were safe and ethically designed. The contrast between those protocols and Guinea Pig Zero could not have been more dramatic. The protocols called subjects “research participants.” Guinea Pig Zero called them “medical meat-puppets,” “lab rats,” or “brain sluts.” The protocols pretended that people were enrolling in studies to advance science. Guinea Pig Zero assumed that nobody in his right mind would enroll in a study for anything but the money. The protocols described the risk and discomforts of studies in oblique clinical language. Guinea Pig Zero was more direct. “The physicians you’ll meet will throw in the old prostate exam, just for the hell of it,” writes Helms in one issue. “But what’s a finger up the ass between old friends?”

Each issue featured a section called “The Treadmill of History,” in which Helms wrote about research abuses and disasters over the ages, but the most compelling parts of the zine were the firsthand accounts from Helms and his guinea pig field reporters. Guinea Pig Zero even published report cards, grading research units from A to F. In a report card on Smith-Kline Beecham, Helms writes about psychiatric drug study from which a guinea pig “emerged with $7,000 in his pocket and his mind on planet Zork” (earning the research unit a grade of “Dirty D”). A guinea pig identified as “Donno” writes about a sleep-deprivation study at the University of Pennsylvania where his mental condition deteriorated so much that he began to hallucinate that he was Tony Randall, guest-hosting The Tonight Show. Theresa Dulce, a guinea pig reporting from PPD Pharmaco in Austin, Texas, was identified as “the editrix of Danzine, the smart & sexy journal by and for ladies in the sex business.” Her report, titled “Spanish Fly Guinea Pigs,” appeared with a photograph of a near-naked woman wearing a G-string and a pig nose.

Guinea Pig Zero was a creature of a particular cultural moment.  It appeared at a time when computers had made desktop publishing cheap and easy, but before the Web had made blogging even cheaper and easier. Drug companies had begun to move their studies out of universities and into the private sector, often at for-profit, stand-alone testing sites. Competition to attract research subjects had begun pushing up payment, making it possible for the first time to make a living as a professional guinea pig. Not a great living, of course—on the pay scale for selling your body, Helms ranks guinea-pigging as somewhere below a porn-film performer and above a crack whore—but still enough to make it look better than ordinary wage slavery. In comparison to a minimum wage job working the deep fryer at Burger King, or temping for a petty tyrant wearing a clip-on necktie, spending three weeks in a drug-testing site didn’t seem so bad.

In its own small way, Guinea Pig Zero was revolutionary. Before Guinea Pig Zero, nobody had really ever thought of guinea-pigging as a job, or that guinea pigs might band together and agitate for better pay and better conditions. It also offered a window into a world that most of us never see, even those of us who work in hospitals and medical schools. Its black humor came from the contrast between the sunny, “saving the world through biomedicine” rhetoric of the research establishment and the darker reality of the enterprise itself, where guinea pigs bend over and submit themselves to anonymous strangers to qualify for the privilege of being fed and bled in an urban industrial park.

Helms published the last issue of Guinea Pig Zero in 2001, and a few years later he retired from drug testing. Garrett County Press has published an anthology of essays from the zine, but no real successor to Guinea Pig Zero has emerged. Perhaps this should not be surprising. Guinea Pig Zero got Helms banned from several research units, and in 1997, when some Guinea Pig Zero report cards were reprinted in Harper’s, Helms was sued by one of the units given a failing grade. Harper’s apologized immediately; Helms stood firm. The suit was dropped only when the sponsor of the unit went bankrupt.

Carl Elliott is the author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, The New York Times, and the Believer. Visit him on the web here.

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