I have always been a naturalist, even in preschool days when I was fascinated by tiny wall lizards darting up paling fences after flies. As a schoolboy I lived in Paddington, an eastern suburb of Sydney.
In Paddo I had a backyard zoo. This consisted of snakes, lizards, frogs, rats, mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, goldfish and one dingo that we picked up as a stray in the city. The charge for admittance was one penny.
The fish, frogs, lizards and snakes were captured in nearby Centennial Park when we could elude the ranger on horseback.
During World War 2, I plied my trade as a civilian blacksmith working on the installation of shore artillery in Darwin. I took advantage of this period to study reptiles, a group in which I had long ago decided to specialise.
Towards the latter part of the War I was transferred to Katherine River over two hundred miles south of Darwin. I continued my reptile studies and soon amassed a sizeable collection of live specimens of snakes, lizards and crocodiles.
I gave away blacksmithing after the war and returned to Sydney for a while. However the Northern Territory was in my blood. I was soon back again with a writer friend I met during the War. I continued my reptile studies with the help of a number of Aboriginal tribes. The men and women would search the bush and bring in harmless snakes, lizards and tortoises. They were paid in tobacco, sugar, flour, tea, powdered milk and hair combs. Roland Robinson, my writer poet companion and I eked out an existence as free-lance journalists.
I eventually made my way to the East Alligator River in Arnhem Land. It was a herpetologist’s paradise. One day I was watching a spectacular corroboree depicting the moods of kangaroos. The Aborigines formed a large circle holding each other’s waists as they hopped grunting like old Boomers. As they stirred up the dust it was almost hard to believe that they weren't kangaroos. An Aborigine came running from the nearby Oenpelli Mission Station and handed me a radio message. It was from the late Doctor Morgan, then the Director of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, in Melbourne. The message requested that I call into the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories at my earliest convenience.
It appeared that antivenom supplies were exhausted as were their reserves of snake venoms. There was no venom source on which to draw. Their previous snake-man, Tom Lades had retired and since died of an asthma attack induced by a severe allergy to actually handling snakes. In New Guinea the Mount Lamington eruptions in 1951 were responsible for hundreds of fleeing natives being bitten by snakes. This emergency used all stocks of antivenom. The doctors asked if I could take the former snake-man's position at the Laboratories. I suggested that I would supply venoms on a free-lance basis. This would then not interfere with my reptile studies, thirst for travelling or my writing. It was quickly agreed under my conditions that I supply venoms under exclusive contract.
When summer came to the eastern states the late George Cann, the Snakey of La Peruse, and a friend since boyhood accompanied me on our biggest snake hunt. The rivers of the western districts of New South Wales were swollen with floodwaters and hundreds of deadly tiger snakes were driven from their earth-crack shelters in the riverbanks to higher ground and hollow logs bordering the backwaters. We hunted snakes among the gnarled water-exposed roots of the red-river gums and waded into the swirling flooded swamps, waist deep, to pluck tiger snakes from stumps above the water line. Our method of handling was to snap them up by the tail and to drop them into a sack headfirst. Some days we walked twenty miles on the return trip to our camp. There the snakes would be transferred to flat boxes and loaded into our vehicle. The first trip netted over five hundred tiger snakes, as many as we could fit into our boxes.
In 1949 I built a small Aquarium and Snake Pit at Woy Woy, an outer suburb of Gosford which is fifty miles north of Sydney. On our return to Woy Woy the newly captured snakes were released in this pit and I decided that the very first snake to be milked of it’s venom for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories would be the biggest. Finally I selected a fat, vicious five-foot yellow specimen. I fumbled and it bit me. Fortunately Doctor Morgan had retained a few vials of antivenom for such an occasion and it was given to me to hold if needed.
Up to 1955 the only antivenom produced for general distribution was specific tiger snake antivenom which gave varying degrees of cross-protection against the bites of most other dangerous Australian snakes. It can also be used to counteract the effects of sea snake venom.
In 1950 at Cairns, north Queensland, a young snake collector named, Kevin Budden, was bitten by a relatively rare taipan he had caught. Before he died in Cairns Base hospital, he requested that the snake be sent to the Serum Laboratories for venom tests. After testing it was considered that, for it’s size (taipans grow to over nine feet), the taipan must be the worlds deadliest snake.
Our Park's supervisor was bitten by one in south western Queensland before venom tests. The flying Doctor took him to Adelaide in a coma were he barely survived in intensive care with the aid of a mechanical respirator. The bite made medical history.
Most antivenoms were developed by a team of scientists led by Doctor Struan Sutherland, Head of Immunology at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. He also updated first aid in case of snake or spider bite that made conventional tourniquets and incision unnecessary. He replaced the old method with a constricting crepe bandage over the bite and wound firmly the entire length of the limb. The limb should be splinted to render completely immobile. The bandage must be left in place until antivenom becomes available. He also developed a chemical kit that, in conjunction with the known locality, enables the particular snake to be identified. So, it is preferable not to wash the bite as venom samples can be taken from the skin’s surface.
When work began for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories the first venoms were produced and processed at our Woy Woy Aquarium for several years.
Doctor Morgan asked if I could go to Queensland and obtain more venom. In the company of two Sydney reptile collectors, John Dwyer and Wal Larking, I scoured the forests for miles surrounding the undulating canefields around Cairns. We returned with venom from two specimens.
On the next trip to the north on the following year with the help of cane farmers, we returned with nine taipans and planned a breeding program.
To the date of writing (1982), although there has been bites, there have been no further lethal taipan bites. Before the specific antivenom the bites were almost certainly fatal.
Thereafter followed specific antivenoms for the brown snake, death adder and, finally a polyvalent antivenom, a combined antivenom for the bites of any unidentified snake from our country. Recently the venom of the rare inland fierce snake, sometimes known as the western taipan, was proven to be twice as deadly as it’s north eastern relative. Fortunately, taipan antivenom is effective against it’s venom.