Venomous encounters

Snakes, vivisection and scientific medicine in colonial Australia

Author: Peter Hobbins

From the day that Europeans first stepped ashore to occupy the Australian continent, they were never alone. If colonists took comfort from the presence of these familiar beasts, they remained less certain of the indigenous creatures they encountered. This book argues that the practice of vivisection inextricably linked familiar animals and venomous snakes in colonial Australia, and offers a new perspective, inter alia, on science and medicine in the colonial antipodes. Public vivisections to study envenomation and antidotes established standards of proof and authority which were followed, rather than led, by learned professionals. The book establishes the concept of the colonial animal matrix, elaborating how white settlers related both to the domestic species that landed alongside them and the autochthonous animals they encountered up to 1840. By the early 1850s, plebeian expertise had established vivisection as the prime means of knowing venomous animals in Australia. Instruments and living experiments became necessary to establish objective medical facts in the antipodes. By the time that Britain legislatively regulated vivisection in mid-1876, animal experimentation had independently become de rigueur for colonial investigations of envenomation and remedies. Seeking an effective remedy for snakebite was considered sufficient reason to lessen moral consideration for animals such as dogs, involved in such experiments. Clinical experience appeared largely to trump vivisectional data for much of the 1890s. Yet, when a 'universal' antivenene appeared, predicated upon the new science of immunology, its efficacy was concomitantly discredited by the novel technologies of experimental medicine.

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