Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Cure Worse Than Cause

George Britton Halford famously led the charge against Charles Darwin's revolutionary theories in Melbourne. At that time he was equally well known as the first chair of Medicine at Melbourne University and the pioneer of 'the dangerous remedy of injecting strong liquor of ammonia into the vein' as a snakebite antidote.

Halford had some success with the treatment, according to Frederick McCoy's account of the ordeal suffered by of the Station Master at Elsternwick who was bitten by a Copperhead. Thankfully snakebite treatment has come a long way since those days, when the cure was almost as bad as the effect of the bite.

A large number of the dangerous cases of snake-bites near Melbourne are due to this species, which for its size is extremely venomous. One remarkable case excited much attention a few years ago, when a station-master named Brown, on the Hobson's Bay Railway at Elsternwick, was bitten by a small individual of this species, which some workmen imagined they had killed, and after carrying it some distance hanging on a stick, threw it upon the platform, when Brown, taking it up, received a small wound in the finger, and shortly showed the usual signs of fatal snake-poisoning. In spite of the ordinary remedies, of excision of the bitten part, rubbing ammonia on the wound, ligatures, and sucking the wound, doses of brandy, galvanism, and being walked about by assistants, he was so completely at the point of death that the two surgeons attending him had gave him up, his sight being gone, his lower extremities completely paralysed, having dilated pupils, swollen face and neck, and coma, from which he could not be roused. The medical attendants, explaining to his friends that they could do no more, and that his death might be looked for in a few minutes, proposed to try what was then considered the dangerous remedy of injecting strong liquor of ammonia into the vein, as advocated by Professor Halford. On this being done by Dr. Halford, who was sent for, to the astonishment of all present, the man instantly recovered consciousness, the pupils of his eyes contracted, and, sitting up he recognized his wife and child and friends, and asked some questions about domestic matters, after having been cold, incapable of seeing, hearing, speaking, or moving, and almost pulseless for hours. He soon recovered, and remained on daily duty till lately.

Historical Voices:
Lowland Copperhead Snake
Elsternwick Railway Station
Lowland Copperhead Snake, Austrelaps superbus, by Arthur Bartholomew.