Toxinology in Australia's Colonial Era: A Chronology and Perspective of Human Envenomation in 19th Century Australia

Toxicon. 2006 Dec 1;48(7):726-37. doi: 10.1016/j.toxicon.2006.07.027. Epub 2006 Aug 3.


The medical management of those envenomed by snakes, spiders and poisonous fish in Australia featured extensively in the writings 19th century doctors, expeditioners and anthropologists. Against the background of this introduced medical doctrine there already existed an extensive tradition of Aboriginal medical lore; techniques of heat treatment, suction, incision and the application of plant-derived pharmacological substances featured extensively in the management of envenomed victims. The application of a hair-string or grass-string ligature, suctioning of the bite-site and incision were practised in a variety of combinations. Such evolved independently of and pre-dated such practices, which were promoted extensively by immigrant European doctors in the late 19th century. Pacific scientific toxinology began in the 17th century with Don Diego de Prado y Tovar's 1606 account of ciguatera. By the end of the 19th century more than 30 papers and books had defined the natural history of Australian elapid poisoning. The medical management of snakebite in Australia was the focus of great controversy from 1860 to 1900. Dogmatic claims of the supposed antidote efficacy of intravenous ammonia by Professor G.B. Halford, and that of strychnine by Dr. Augustus Mueller, claimed mainstream medical attention. This era of potential iatrogenic disaster and dogma was brought to a conclusion by the objective experiments of Joseph Lauterer and Thomas Lane Bancroft in 1890 in Brisbane; and by those of C.J. Martin (from 1893) and Frank Tidswell (from 1898), both of Sydney. The modern era of Australian toxinology developed as a direct consequence of Calmette's discovery, in Paris in 1894, of immune serum, which was protective against snakebite. We review the key contributors and discoveries of toxinology in colonial Australia.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Australia
  • Female
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine, Traditional / history
  • Oceanic Ancestry Group / history
  • Snake Bites / history*
  • Snake Bites / therapy
  • Snakes / classification
  • Toxicology / history*