From ammonia and alcohol, to splints and antivenoms: Dr Peter Hobbins from the Department of History charts the evolution of Australia's snake bite treatments.
Summer is traditionally Australia’s snake bite season, when both snakes and people become more active. The human death toll is now admirably low, but it wasn’t always so.
Although colonial statistics are highly unreliable, in 1882-1892 about 11 people died from snake bites across Australia a year. Since then, the continent’s population has grown from 2.2 million to 24.3 million, yet on average just two people died from snake bites a year in 2001–2013. While improved transport, communications and ambulance services have all contributed, so have the first aid and medical measures used to counteract snake venom.
A typical case from 1868 suggests the complexity – and desperation – of colonial remedies. When Victorian railway workers killed a brown snake at Elsternwick Station, they threw its body to stationmaster John Brown. Either the serpent was still alive, or Brown brushed its fangs, when he struck it “with an angry gesture”. The usual signs of envenomation (venom injected into the skin) soon appeared: vomiting, physical weakness then creeping paralysis followed by “coma”. Death, seemingly, was inevitable.
The stationmaster was rushed to nearby Balaclava, where surgeon George Arnold tied a ligature (tourniquet) around Brown’s arm before slicing out the bite site, hoping to remove the venom. He then poured ammonia (a hazardous chemical used today in cleaning) onto the wound to neutralise any remaining venom before urging Brown to drink six ounces (175mL) of brandy to stimulate his circulation.
He waved pungent smelling salts under Brown’s nose then applied a paste-like poultice of mustard to his patient’s hands, feet and abdomen to alleviate internal congestion. Further stimulation followed via electric shocks before the staggering, semi-conscious stationmaster was marched up and down to keep him awake – and alive. Brown, nevertheless, kept deteriorating.
Arnold urgently summoned the colony’s only medical professor, George Halford at Melbourne University, who reluctantly agreed to apply his new snake bite remedy. He opened a vein in Brown’s arm and injected ammonia directly into the bloodstream. The stationmaster revived almost immediately, leading another doctor to assert “the injection of Ammonia saved the man’s life” (do not try this at home).
Yet by far the most popular colonial remedy, both with practitioners and patients, was drinking copious quantities of alcohol, especially brandy.
John Brown’s treatment followed a pattern familiar across Australia from 1800 into the 1960s. While many of the 1868 interventions now seem bizarre – or downright dangerous – they made sense in historical context. Until well into the 20th century, snake bite treatments alternated between three fundamental approaches.
In common with today’s understanding, most European settlers, and many Indigenous cultures, considered venom to be an external “poison” that moved through the body. Physical measures such as ligature or suction were thus common to expel venom or limit its circulation.
A second strand of remedies, from mustard poultices to injected ammonia, sought to counteract its ill effects in the body, often by stimulating heart function and blood flow.
The third approach was to directly neutralise venom itself, for instance, pouring ammonia onto the bite.
Until the 1850s, physical measures dominated, while the next 50 years were the heyday of opposing-action treatments. When Halford’s intravenous ammonia fell from favour (as it didn’t seem to work), it was replaced in the 1890s by injections of another notorious poison: strychnine. At first even more popular than ammonia, this highly toxic plant-based poison was blamed for killing more patients than it saved. Yet by far the most popular colonial remedy, both with practitioners and patients, was drinking copious quantities of alcohol, especially brandy.
The third approach, directly neutralising venom, underlay both Australia’s hugely popular folk “cures” and the novel “antivenene” technology developed in the 1890s. Now they are known as antivenoms and are created by injecting venom into (generally) horses, prompting an immune response, then purifying antibodies from their blood to inject into snake-bitten patients.
But antivenenes suffered a slow gestation in Australia. The first, targeting black snake venom, was developed in 1897; experimental tiger snake antivenene followed in 1902. But antivenenes are tricky to produce, distribute and store. They also proved difficult to administer, sometimes provoking life-threatening anaphylactic reactions (a severe allergic response).
It wasn’t until 1930 that commercial tiger snake antivenene came onto the Australian market.
Other injections targeting a wider range of serpents. “Polyvalent” antivenene, which is effective against multiple venoms, only emerged from the mid-1950s. Meanwhile, patients continued to undergo various first-aid measures, particularly ligatures and Condy’s crystals (potassium permanganate, used to clean wounds) applied to the bite in the hope of inactivating venom.
Current snake bite management only stabilised in the 1980s. Two developments were key: rapid tests to identify the injected venom and a new first-aid strategy.
Scientist Struan Sutherland pioneered the “pressure immobilisation technique”. This recommends tightly wrapping a bandage around the bitten region, adding a splint and minimising movement to slow venom spread.
Not washing or cutting the bite site leaves a venom sample to aid identification and so choose the most appropriate antivenom.
But today’s management is still being evaluated because both venoms and treatments still pose clinical challenges, including severe reactions and long-term damage.
And just as in 1868, two eternal questions remain critical: was it truly a deadly serpent, and did it inject enough venom to kill?
Dr Peter Hobbins is an ARC DECRA Fellow and a historian of science, technology and medicine in the Department of History. Dr Hobbins received his PhD from the University of Sydney in 2014, where he was awarded the Rita and John Cornforth Medal for PhD Achievement. This article was originally published on The Conversation.