Rare Bites: Researches on Australian Venoms by Frank Tidswell (1906)
25
August

By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , /


Well thanks Julie. Thank you all for
coming along today as well. I certainly couldn’t resist the chance when I was
invited to give a Rare Bites talk to talk about a snake bite topic. And so, if
you’ll pardon the pun, I wanted to say “fang you” for the invitation.
Let’s hope I can go uphill from there. Look, I think Frank Tidswell’s book is
not so much a landmark in medical history as a book end, and that’s very
much how I see it. I see it as a book that marks off the end of a particular
colonial way of understanding venomous animals and medical problems more
broadly in colonial Australia. And starts to illustrate the stirrings of what
these days we call bio-medicine. A different way of extrapolating from
animal experiments in laboratories to clinical medicine and that’s definitely
not the colonial mode of conduct. Now it’s a fairly small book. It’s about 80
pages long- again- please feel free to enjoy after I’ve finished- but it was Tidswell’s attempt to collate as much knowledge as he could in this new modern
mode, which meant that he dismissed a lot of the older work out of hand as well. So
it really is a compendium of his work and a few other bits and pieces
published at the start of the 20th century. Broadly, it encompasses what we
might call statistics, although really they’re just collated data. There’s no
statistical analysis in there. A range of his experiments which, for me- somebody
who studied pharmacology many decades ago- I can understand completely because
it’s fairly basic experimental pharmacology. As well as his attempts at
creating some new therapeutic measures, particularly anti-venoms, or what we now
call anti-venoms as well. Most of the book focuses on snakes- as you won’t be
surprised to hear- there’s a reasonably solid section on platypuses, which I’ll
touch on briefly, but feel free to jump in at the question time and ask more
about that ,and then he finishes up on what these days we call the red-back
spider. Interestingly, Tidswell left out paralysis ticks.
I find that strange because they were starting to be a clinical problem by the
time he wrote this book and he studied tick fever in cattle, and yet he
pointedly didn’t study the issue of paralysis tics. That was later um, studied
really by a different group here at the University of Sydney in the nineteen twenties. Now what we know about Frank Tidswell comes largely from the work of the late
Peter Tyler. Tidswell was the son of a rural pub owner. He was born in 1867 and then he came here to the University of Sydney where he studied medicine, and then later
worked as a resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital just over
the way. But he couldn’t keep away from the University, and he was particularly
drawn to this chap here on the right. Charles or C.J. Martin. Now Martin was
the demonstrator in Physiology here at the University and Tidswell started
working with him particularly around snakebite but also around platypus venom
as well in the mid 1890’s. And Martin, in the 1890’s in Sydney and Melbourne
inspired a whole new generation of what we’d these days maybe would call medical
investigators, and Tidswell was certainly one of those who are infused
with what came to be known as the Martin spirit. And in fact the National Health
and Medical Research Council still has the C.J. Martin awards for really
outstanding medical researchers. Which gives you some hint of his long-standing
impact on Australian medical research. Now, in addition to his laboratory work
at the University, Tidswell was also taken by modern bacteriology, and so in
1895 he was appointed to the Board of Health. Which is a New South Wales body.
And in 1908 he helped set up- in fact he campaigned to set up- a new proto- medical research Institute called the New South Wales Bureau of Microbiology that ran
from 1908 to 1913 before it shut down. Now one of the reasons it shut down was
the same reason that Tidswell was shut down. Was that he was headstrong and
opinionated and he didn’t sit very well in a public service culture. So by the
start of the First World War he’d annoyed enough people and they
annoyed him enough that he actually pulled out of medical research and went
and worked in clinical medicine pretty much until his death in 1941. So it’s a
bit of a shame for Australian medical research, but what that means is that
this book- Researchers on Australian Venom’s- also fits into perhaps the most
active phase of his investigative life as well. I think the question arises though.
Why would somebody like Tidswell, who’s drawn to modern medicine and all the
challenges of combating infectious diseases at the end
19th century. Why would he be interested in snakebite? Well, it still was a major
cultural- and to some extent clinical problem- at the end of the nineteenth
century. Particularly in country areas. Remember he was, of course, a rural
resident originally but also in this period- the 1890’s and the first decade of
the 20th century- snake venom was actually at the
forefront of experimental physiology, experimental biochemistry, or what was
known as physiological chemistry at the time, but also in the new science of
immunology as well. And so serum therapy – and particularly treatments for terrible
diseases like diphtheria for instance- was developed hand-in-hand with the
first anti-venom’s- or what these days we call anti-venom’s as well. So, this work was
actually very much on topic and it connected with scholars not only in
Australia but in the United States and France, India and in French Indochina as
well. So you see that throughout his texts, he’s actually conversing with the
latest in these scientific developments, and particularly this new mode of treatment. Immunotherapy. Nevertheless, in the book, Tidswell admits that compared with
infectious diseases, which were killing thousands of Australians each year,
snakebite was not a major epidemiological problem. Now, whenever I
present data from colonial statistical analyses, I always say it’s a pack of
lies. Don’t trust it very much. Honestly, these are indicative, but what they give
you a sense of is what people at the time believed, and I think that’s an
important distinction from saying these are actually true data. Now if you look
on the graph, the red line at the top is multiplied, but it broadly represents the
growth in the Australian population from 2.2 million in 1881 to 5.5 million in
1921. In that same period, the blue line shows you the drastic problem of
snakebite across Australia. So it was almost nothing. You know, there were 10 to
15 people dying across the entire continent per year in this period, and in
fact if you want to know who the typical victims were, have a look what happens
through World War 1. When you send your young men away overseas for four years,
suddenly the snakebite death rate drops dramatically. So it was young men, alcohol and sticks
were a problem then, and they continue to be a problem now. Um, although it was a
minimal clinical problem- there were lots of snakebite cases- but in terms of death rate,
it was, it was almost nothing. But, in Tidswell’s words, there were few
accidents more distressing, and again in his words, victims presented the pitiable
extremity of terror. You know, there was a genuine popular dread of dying from
snakebite. Partly because the death rate was seen to be so high. One of my
arguments for the fact that this was a cultural as much as a clinical problem
comes from the fact that from 1891 in New South Wales, the police were given
specific instructions that they were to collate reports of every snake bite that
came to their notice. And so they had quite a large body of snake bite reports
that came into Tidswell’s analysis. He added to that records from the
government statist, and also he went through the colonial medical journals.
Particularly the Australasian Medical Gazette to find additional case studies.
And he came up with about 190 case reports that he felt were reliable enough to
analyse. Now partly the reason he did this- and I’ll come back to this- was to
try and work out what might be rational first aid for snakebite. But he was also
interested in which snakes were deemed to be responsible for the most deadly
bites. In 1898, Edgar Weight had published a new book,
Australian Snakes, which said that there were five fatal snakes in this country.
The copperhead, the brown Snake, the black Snake, the tiger snake and the death
adder, and particularly the black snake which we see in the middle here. The
red-bellied black snake- Pseudechis porphyriacus- was demonized through the
19th century as the most deadly snake on the Australian continent, and so for
instance Charles Martin and Tidswell- when they’d been doing venom research in
the laboratory- had focused very much on black snake venom precisely because it
was seen as the most dangerous snake in the country. Well, what happened when he
actually studied these data? I’m glad you asked.
Another slightly complex slide, but what I’ve showing here are two sets of
colonial data in green. You can see Tidswell’s results, and then there’s
another set from the 1920’s. So broadly, Tidswell fits into the
larger understanding of which snakes were dangerous, and we can see coming in
from the left here case reports of brown- sorry, black, brown, tiger and death adder
bites, but don’t forget over on the right the number of people where the snake
wasn’t identified and that is an ongoing clinical problem as well. But, when he
came to analyze the fatality rates, Tidswell found something very interesting.
That roughly 50% of people bitten by a tiger snake or a death adder died. But, a
much larger number of people were bitten by tiger snakes than by death adders. So
he decided- quite reasonably I think- that the tiger snake was the deadliest
Australian snake, and that affirmed his laboratory experiments which showed that
its venom was incredibly potent, and in fact it was so potent that he made a
gambit and said this is the deadliest snake in the world. Gram for gram in its
venom. And this is the period in which, around 1900, federation of the Australian colonies. This is the first time that Australian snakes are being lifted to that global
scale of toxicity. Before that they’d been seen as pretty trifling compared
with, say, the Cobra in India, or the rattlesnake in the United States. The
death adder and the brown snake was still seen as fatal, but not necessarily
as dangerous. But what was very interesting is if we look at the black
snake. Three times as many case reports and no deaths. So after a century of
Australians believing the red-bellied black snake was the most deadly on the
continent, Tidswell said- ah actually no- we don’t actually have any recorded deaths
from that snake bite as well. And so he said quote “that it was not deserving of
its present baleful reputation”. There’s also a bit of an embarrassment for him
having done all that work on its venom. Now again, just a point that his data
seemed clear but there was no statistical analysis on this. They’re
purely quantitative data. So he’s making conclusions just by eyeballing the
figures as well. So this is one of the points where it’s not really modern
bio-medicine. It’s still a rather older model of analysis.
Now in the book- and again do feel free to go and poke around some of the
tables in there- he broke down snake bite by the month of the year, and seasonality,
by the time of day in which people were bitten and also the body parts on which
they’ll bitten, and all of these seem pretty logical. That people are mostly
bitten in summer, mostly bitten during daylight, and mostly
bitten on the lower limbs because they either stood on a snake or they were
reaching out to grab it or to kill it. Um. Although I’m dismissive of colonial data in a lot of cases, what I do find interesting is that when you look at
three different sets- and again this is Tidswell’s in the green, you find that
the gender distribution is quite similar. About 75% of victims are male and 25% are
female, and even more interestingly, the death rate in either group is reportedly
identical. About 30%. Now, I don’t want you to leave here today believing that in
colonial Australia, 30% of people bitten by a snake died. This is 30%
of reported cases. So a lot of the minor cases and recoveries weren’t
reported. It’s a dramatic over- reporting, but I think there’s an interesting
consistency within the data that’s worth commenting on. On the other hand, the
burden of deaths fell very much on the young. So, although people under 20
represented half of those bitten by snakes, they represented two-thirds of
the deaths, and that was quite consistent with other colonial data as well. Young
people- particularly children under 10- died at a much higher rate than adults
did. Now unsurprisingly, Tidswell said,
Australians had a great urge to intervene, and he reeled off as so many
others did at the time, this enormous list of potential treatments that were
undertaken in the first 24 to 48 hours after a snake bite. People would be marched up and down. They’d have a torniquet wrapped around them above the bitten part. It
would be cut out or it would be cut into. People would sucker to try and draw out
the poison. They’d apply heated cups and there’s another attempt to draw out the
poison. They’d douse it in ammonia in order to try and neutralize the venom. Or
they’d give them alcohol as a stimulant. Like a bottle of brandy. There were
children who died from alcohol poisoning because they were given so much hard
spirits. Because it was seen as an absolute specific. Alcohol was seen to
directly counteract snake venom in this period.
in addition to all these measures. there were what Tidswell referred to as
ineffective barbarities. Which have included cauterizing the bite by
applying hot coals to it, putting gunpowder on it and blasting it,
and also amputating the bitten part. All of these he thought were ineffective. But
the other thing that Tidswell was interested in- particular from 1890s- was
the phenomenal popularity of pocket snakebite kits. You can see here on the
bottom right one that uses the chloride of lime as a potential antidote to
snakebite. But especially in the 1890’s, it was strychnine which these as we all
know was a notorious poison but it was carried by laypeople and injected in
increasing doses if they’ve been bitten by a snake. Now what’s interesting is
that when you go back and look at the data from the colonial period, injected
remedies- so on the left, the very left, we have intravenous injection of ammonia to
counteract snakebite, and the next three graphs the different analyses of
subcutaneous injection of strychnine. We find that all of those suggested that
injecting these sorts of poisons didn’t improve the situation. In fact they
tended to kill patients more than the snakebite did. Interestingly, if we look
at Tidswell’s data, the two columns on the right, he said that actually the
addition of strychnine had no effect. It didn’t change the clinical outcome. So
given how poisonous it was, it’s probably better not to use it. The one measure he
said dramatically reduced death after snakebite was the application of a
torniquet, and so he iterated the Board of
Health’s recommendations that we saw in that earlier snake identification chart.
Tie a torniquet above the bite site. Cut into the wound and possibly suck out the
poison, and apply stimulants like brandy in small doses. I think that what he
finally came out and said, more importantly than anything else is that quote “but the
real lesson to be learnt is when to stop”. In other words, don’t keep having another
go. Tidswell himself didn’t stop though. Because, as I mentioned, he was part of
this new era of immunotherapy in the 1890s, turn of the 20th century. Now this
was a period when, for instance, the serum therapy for diphtheria was dramatically
reducing the death rate in a horrendous disease that killed large numbers of
children around the world. Tidswell was particularly inspired by the work
Albert Calmette, who had been working in Saigon in French Indochina. Who produced
a serum from the blood of animals that he called antivenin. In other words, it
was meant not to counteract the venom- the effects of venom in the body- but
it’s actually meant to neutralize venom itself. So it was an anti-venom.
Tidswell followed the same methodology so that so that over 1898 to 1901, he took a
lame ambulance horse from the Board of Health, and very carefully and with great
care for this animal, injected increasing doses of tiger snake venom into it until
it could withstand phenomenal amounts of tiger snake venom, and from that he drew
off its blood and serum and produced what he declared to be an effective
anti-venom in Australian circumstances. The problem was though that he said it
was so difficult to produce. That it was so difficult to store, and that it had to
be distributed around the country, and it could only be used in cases where the
snake had been correctly identified as a tiger snake that again quote “snakebite
for the moment is beyond the sphere of practical Serio- therapy. So in 1906, he’d
proven that you could make an anti-venom but he decided that it was simply
inefficient to try to roll that on a practical scale. So in Australia, we had
to actually wait until 1930. Until we had the first anti-venom again against tiger
snake bite. in the meantime, the older methods like strychnine injection
continued to be used on a relatively regular basis. Now, just as I round out,
I’ll come to the last few elements of his book as well and I think these were
all driven really more by curiosity than by any great clinical need. So since its
discovery by Europeans in the late 18th century, the platypus had represented an
enigma in all sorts of ways and I think one of the most overlooked of these is
this feature. It’s the spur on the rear legs of the male platypus that’s
connected to a duct that produces a very poisonous substance. Sometimes called
venom, but really it’s a poison. Now through the 19th century,
there’d been a range of case reports in humans and also in dogs that when you
were spiked by these Spurs on the back legs of a platypus, it was incredibly
painful. there was a huge swelling and you
lose use of that limb for six to eight weeks in some cases. It wasn’t fatal but it
was incredibly painful. With Charles Martin, Tidswell conducted some
experiments with platypus venom in a number of rabbits which died quite
rapidly after the administration and so they said that it’s certainly a
dangerous poison. Uh, and interestingly, they compared its physiological effects with
those of snake venom and I’m interested in that. This may be something to bring
up in questions because really what they were saying was that the platypus had a
marked affinity to reptiles rather than the more standard way of representing
representing it as a primitive mammal. Now another curiosity that he rounds out
his book with is what he calls in the introduction the katipo. Anyone here
know of the katipo? No New Zealanders? Okay. So in the late 19th century, the
katipo was the most feared spider in the world. It lived in New Zealand. It was
very similar to other latrodectus- type spiders around the globe
which had gathered a small reputation for being deadly. But in New Zealand, it
was considered quite deadly according to Maori law. Those legends translated to
Australia, where we had a spider that looked a little bit like this, and it was
this spider that we now called the read-back that Tidswell tried to
analyze in the last few pages. Problem is that red backs are so tiny, he couldn’t
extract any venom, so he resorted in his words to the primitive method of
inducing a red back to bite a mouse. What happened? The mouse was fine.
So Tidwell’s brief conclusion was, as you can see at the top of this slide, that
there was an improbability of a fatal issue should a red- back spider bite a
human being. So he really dismissed red- backs in the final pages of the account.
So what did Tidswell’s book actually signify in 1906? He affirmed on the one
hand that Australian snake venom’s ranked incredibly highly in global potency
scales if not in the numbers of actual human victims. But much as he tried to
collate all of this information and rationalize clinical care and to some
extent the cultural response to snake bite, really he didn’t change
pragmatic first-aid, and he certainly didn’t change the way that Australians viewed
their snakes which continued to be slaughtered in large numbers until they
came under legislative protection in the 1970’s which was when first aid was
finally comprehensively revisited. So this is why I think Frank Tidswell’s
researches on Australian venom’s really bookends a particular way of
understanding the colonial world. But also gives us a sort of slithering
beginning of the modern biomedical world in Australian context, and on that note
I’ll leave you by concluding as I began by saying “fang you” very much. I’m happy
to answer any questions. That was, may I say, enjoyable. It’s certainly salutary. I
wonder. You don’t mention the, the army the medical services of, of the army,
which, which had encountered snakes in India- particularly- and it was a well
known problem. Is that a feature of ah Australian medical history? Yes, okay thats a good question. So the question is about whether the Army
Medical Service was interested in snakebite. In Australian context, I
haven’t seen any material that suggests that army doctors were interested in
snakebite but in contrast- as you mentioned Roy- in India, the Indian
medical service had a huge interest in snakebite. And so particularly Joseph
Farah who- in the 1860’s and 1870’s- conducted a large number of experiments,
collated data across India which showed that roughly 20,000 people died of
snakebite each year in India and Burma together. So
it was a huge pragmatic problem in India, mostly amongst indigenous Indians but
also amongst troops as well. Although interestingly most of their data showed
that more people died of- more British soldiers died of dog bite and rabies
than they did of snake bite in India. Probably because they were wearing boots
and putties and so on as opposed to most of the locals who went barefoot in the
field. So part of my book- actually a large deal of-
my book discusses contrast between the situation in India through the 1860’s
through to the 1900’s and Australia as well, where Indian doctors were
completely dismissive of Australian snakes. They thought they were a trifle
compared with the Cobra and the Crate and so on in India and it was only in
this period with Martin and Tidswell’s work that finally their standardized
physiological experiments actually designed to give a baseline lethal dose
in guinea pigs and rabbits against which serum, serum therapy could be
tested. It was only when we had these standardized global experiments that
they could be compared like on like, and that’s where Australian snake venom
started to be seen as globally the most toxic. Even more toxic than cobra venom May I follow that up because it’s so
intriguing? Um, immunology, the science of immunology begins in Australia.
It begins with snake bites. The, the whole Institute. All of that edifice of first
Nobel Prize in medicine that we get is in, has to do with, ultimately, with snake
bites. So it becomes a hugely important subject in Australia and therefore
globally. Do you, do look- I’m sorry, I haven’t read your book, but do you look
at the global politics of that so to speak? All of a sudden Australia
gets, Australian medical science gets on the map because of snake bite. Yeah, so the question is about uh, the importance of immunology and snake bite therapy in
particular for the standing of Australian medical research. That’s not
this project. That’s a previous project that I looked at. Particularly Australian
medical science in the interwar years and what I’ve tended to say is a couple
of things. Firstly if you go back and look at any Australian, Australasian,
medical, pharmacy, natural history or science journal from 1820 to 1920,
somewhere in the first volume of any of those periodicals, you’ll find references
to snakebite. So it always comes up as a pragmatic but also a scientific problem
as well. Is periodic interest in the problem
of snake bite. It seems to wax and wane about every two decades and a large
number of people in the 1860’s and 1880’s, early 1900’s and 1920’s become interested
in snakebite because I think they see it has popular appeal. They believe it’s a
practical problem that they can solve through the methods of modern medical
science whatever that means in 1865 or 1888, and they don’t always succeed. But
certainly the work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in the late
1920’s in conjunction with the Commonwealth serum laboratories’
developed the first effective antivenoms but also in doing that pioneered the
very first medical research grants administered by the Commonwealth and in
fact led to what we now call the National Health and Medical Research
Council. So that paved the way to some extent for
immunological research at the Hall Institute, although it was more- they
focused more on pharmacology- and as so MacFarlane Burnet who came later, was a
different strand of immunology but he was certainly surrounded by that which
is what in the end led to his Nobel Prize in 1959. Yeah, thanks very much
for the presentation, its is very good. Just wondering through your research, had you
come across any reference or documentation on how the indigenous
population dealt with snake bites? Cause I’m sure they would have come across.. Yes, it’s a tricky one for two reasons. Firstly, my research focused on the way in which Europeans
understood snakebite rather than attempting to understand
indigenous ways of knowing. So anything I say about Aboriginal understanding of
snakebite or effective Maori understanding of katipo bites comes
through white sources. Colonial sources. Broadly, the
problem was diversity. You know, the enormous cultural diversity of
indigenous groups across Australia meant that there were a vastly different
number of ways of knowing about venomous creatures. So there was almost nothing
about spiders that I’ve ever seen, but in some areas you know, snakes would be a
totem animal. In others, they would be completely ignored and reviled and
kept away from. So some groups would eat snakes, others wouldn’t touch them. Some
would have very clear cultural beliefs about which snakes were dangerous. But a
group, you know, 50 kilometers away wouldn’t think the same snake was
dangerous. In terms of medical treatment- what we might broadly call medical treatment- there’s also no consistency. Quite a number of groups
would use a torniquet, and they would cut and suck the word and so Europeans
coming in would say well of course they do that. That’s what every rational
person does! You know, it’s just universal. So. They partly dismiss Aboriginal
knowledge by saying that’s what we’ve known in, you know, in the Western world
since antiquity. They might stuff possum fur into the wound and singe it. They
might put it under running water as an attempt to sort of flush out the venom.
What Aboriginal people never did, except on the very north coast probably where
they had contact with Macassan traders who therefore had contact with Dutch and
Chinese medicine, nowhere else in Australia was any medicine ever taken in.
It was all treated at the bite side. But it was very heterogeneous and therefore
it was fairly easy to dismiss as well. So they were very few white or- you know-
Europeans who cared what Aboriginal people had to say. Except for Gerard Krefft,
who published a lot of work on Australian snakes in the 1860’s. He was
one of the few who took Aboriginal testimony seriously, but it was very
difficult, and in fact there were some Aboriginal groups who believed that the
snake itself didn’t really matter because the snake was just a conduit for
sorcery. So a little bit like having the bone pointed at you. That if a sorcerer
had it in for you, they would send the agent- that the snake as an agent of
their ill-will towards you, and there was no point doing anything because the
snake didn’t matter. It was the sorcery you had to deal with as well. So there
was so much diversity in these views that I’ve tried to summarize it in my
work but again I’m not versed in indigenous ways of knowing. So that,
that’s a refracted view. Yeah. In the introduction,
your introduction, you mentioned that you’d focused on some quirky scientists?
Can we hear a bit about- more about that? Yes, um,
so James Bray his… so yes, last year I had a fellowship at the State Library of New
South Wales and I was looking at the papers and the life of a chap in Sydney
called James Samuel Bray. Now he was born a little bit before Tidswell in
1849, and he’s an interesting contrast though. So Tidswell represents sort of a
really modern- I guess in our sense of the word-
very modern outlook on science. You know. He’s keen to adopt laboratory methods.
He’s cleaned- he’s keen to use microscopes. Physiological apparatus. Glassware.
I mean, his descriptions for instance of a siphoning off serum from his horse to
make antivenin are quite detailed. James Bray was quite a different sort of
person. He was what I tend to call an amateur naturalist in a much more early
19th century mode, except he was operating in the late 19th century. So
he’s a bit of a throwback in a way but he ran a museum- so-called- in Sydney
called Bray’s Museum of curios and it stocked all manner of things from
shrunken heads to- you know- animal bones, to ethnographic artifacts. But he also
had live snakes on display as well and he would actually conduct experiments in
his museum where he would have snakes biting cats, dogs and other animals and-
say- goanna’s for instance as well. In the museum as part of a public display.
The thing is that Bray craved scientific respectability but effectively his
museum was more of an Emporium. Anything you came in you could buy, and you could
come into his shop a little three- it’s probably about as big as this room- and
his museum was about the size of this room and you could poke around and buy
things if you wanted and so he was always on the edge of scientific
responsibility- respectability and also on the edge of social respectability as well. So um, for
instance, he left his first wife- this is in 1876- he left his first wife and three
children for a barmaid and had two children with her before he married her.
So, that gives you a sense in the late 19th century context, the sort of
boundaries he was willing to skirt. I guess. So there was a sense in which his
work was not respected scientifically but also people who were respectable
didn’t want to associate with him as well, and I’ve seen that in his
correspondence so he- I guess finally coming back to his scientific method- I
think his work was quite an interesting contrast with Tidswell because Bray
would still look down a microscope at venom crystals and he was trying to
extract meaning from just looking at dried crystals and not going any
further. He couldn’t see how he needed to then use that dried venom reconstituted
in liquid, injected in measured quality- quantities into an experimental animal
that had been instrumented, and then extract from- you know- recording media
like a climber graph how he might read some sort of physiological message from
that. He didn’t do all the rest. He just looked down his microscope at the venom
crystals and thought what am I looking at here? And he couldn’t ever get past it,
so in some ways I feel sorry for James Bray but he was very much- I think- a
colonial relic at a time when people like Tidswell were embodying a whole
new way of understanding the natural world. So that was rather a long
discussion. Thanks for your talk. Ah, I just wondered, as a result of digital work, was
this sort of a perverse national pride in the danger of our creatures? You know,
along with spiders and sharks. Yes. You start to see that emerging. So in the
19th century, Australian colonists were not particularly enamored of their snakes
in any way, you know, and I- anywhere as you saw in one of those early pictures-
any time they encountered a snake even if they were busy doing something else
they’d get off, grab a stick and chase it and kill it. They thought it was their
patriotic duty to do so. It’s only around this moment- around Federation in 1901
that you start to see Australians becoming proud of their dangerous
creatures. Ah, and I think it’s partly because of the work of Tidswell and
Martin who are now saying look- on a global level- their venom is
extraordinarily potent and now by about 1914 Australian venom’s were circling
the world. They were going to India and into Britain, into the United States and to
Switzerland. All sorts of places to be used as biochemical experimental agents.
So you start to see a growth in this belief. Spiders weren’t seen as dangerous
despite- you know- I think partly because of Tidswell’s work.
Spiders weren’t seen as dangerous in Australia till 1927. Quite specifically,
red-back and funnel web spiders were not believed to kill Australians until
1927. But this interest in snakes and this pride in how deadly they were
coincides with a bigger movement that I guess there’s been called eco-
nationalism. That says as the, the nativist movement- in other words-
generations of people of European descent had been born in Australia and their parents and their grandparents are born here
increasingly identifying with the natural environment and they become
increasingly drawn to indigenous creatures to represent them. So the
Australian coat of arms is not held up by a lion and a unicorn. It’s held up by
a kangaroo and an emu, and you see creatures like the kangaroo, the emu, the
platypus and the kookaburra all start to become really important emblems of
Australian identity at the turn of the 20th century.
Snakes less so, but there is I think from that moment are growing sort of perverse
pride in just how deadly they are. It’s around this period as well you start to
see the early glimmerings of interest in marine stingers too. Ah, sharks I didn’t study them as much because they’re not venomous. But again, I always kept an eye
out for them because when you’re looking for snakes in any index, you’re also
seeing scorpions, spiders and sharks and, you know, I never saw a lot about sharks
until again about … but also public bathing really only took off with
relaxation the laws in 1903, I think. So suddenly there were a lot more people
swimming in our beaches from around the time of Federation. They were much more
aware of sharks from that period so and I think they were so proud of them at
that point but, um, but yeah. That. It’s a slow burn I think with the snake story, but
certainly that pride in Australian indigenous creatures is very prominent
from the 1890’s, and certainly from 1900. Peter, I just have one quick question.
Can you clarify venom versus poison? Yes, it’s a good question and it’s one that
gets mixed up a lot but basically venom is a modified saliva. So venom is
something that’s injected by a creature that comes effectively from its saliva
glands and is injected with a bite. Whereas poison is produced elsewhere in
the body usually as a defensive measure but not always as well. So for instance
if you think about the cane toad for instance, you know, has sax on its back
that burst when the creatures bitten and they emit poison. So this is why the
platypus sooner Tidswell in his book calls it venom in inverted commas. Some
of the time and other times he refers to it as platypus poison, and sometimes
the inverted commas out there as well. Because it’s produced in the creature
and released through a duct and a spur or you like a sharpened nail. A little
bit like a Fang. There’s always a lot of confusion about it but I tend to refer
to it as platypus poison rather than platypus venom. I’m happy to stick
around and also… Are the female platypus harmless? Yes so as I understand it
during early development both sexes of the platypus develop these rudimentary
structures on their rear legs, but in the females, they don’t develop into a spur.
There’s a slight corrugation in their flesh at that point but there’s no sort
of duct or anything that leads to venom production. So it’s purely a male
characteristic and that’s one of the things I’m interested in because so much biology of
platypuses has focused on what might be seen as the female characteristics. On
whether they produce milk and whether they lay eggs, and I think it’s this male
characteristic that’s been often overlooked. The echidna, which is also a
monitoring, there’s a rudimentary spur on the male but there’s not actually a
connection between the spur and the duct. And so again, this is presented as sort
of an evolutionary quandary. You know. It’s usually seen as an ancient
structure that’s disappearing but there’s no reason it couldn’t be the
other way around as well. So anyway I like to throw out these challenges to biologists
because you know we tend to think that evolution is not
directional. That, you know, the evolution is not heading any particular direction or
coming from any particular direction but when you think about a structure like
the spur on the platypus which Tid’s well and many others have said- why is it
there? What does it do? Is it for defense? Is it for mating? Is it for grooming? Is
it for climbing up, you know, river banks? Why would it only be in the male’s? Is it
for combat between males? That’s never been definitively answered, and so asking
the same question- why is there also a similar structure in the Echidna? I mean,
yeah, it raises the same sorts of issues as well. Why, why would you have a
characteristic that is partly present and partly not present as well? What does
that mean to how we understand these primitive mammals, and I’ve said why
don’t we ever think of them as advanced reptiles? Thank you very much. Thank you very much for the invitation. [Applause] you


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