On the morning of 28 July, 1950, Kevin Budden walked up to a roadside in Queensland, Australia with several feet of angry snake coiled around his arm, and flagged down a truck.
Budden, aged 20, was already an experienced snake handler, who specialised in collecting venomous species. The era of venom research in Australia was just taking off, and men like Budden were instrumental in capturing the serpents that scientists used to make antivenoms.
The taipan was high on his list. Its brown body grows up to 3 metres long and its yellow head can deliver one of the most potent venoms of any snake. At the time, there was no antivenom.
As wonderfully recounted by David Williams, Budden and his friends had already failed to catch a taipan the previous year. This time, it took him four weeks of searching before he finally found one, hidden under some rubbish and about to eat a rat. He managed to subdue the snake with his foot and grabbed its neck. The taipan was enraged and Budden, unable to get it into a sack, simply walked to the nearest road, still holding it by the neck. A friendly (and probably alarmed) truck driver took him to a local snake-catcher, who confirmed that Budden had—finally—caught a taipan.
But by now, Budden’s hand was cramped and sweaty. His grip faltered when he finally tried to lower the taipan into a bag, and it bit him on the hand. He was taken to hospital, but died the next day. There was, after all, no antivenom.
Even after he was bitten, Budden seemed more concerned for the snake’s safety than his own. He insisted that the taipan shouldn’t be harmed, for it was still tremendously useful for research. Everyone honoured his wishes. The taipan was taken to Melbourne and milked for its venom before itself dying a few weeks later.
Fifty-eight years later, Bryan Fry was rummaging through some dusty boxes at the University of Melbourne’s famous Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) when he came across a treasure trove—vial upon vial of vintage venom.
The stocks were part of the collection of Straun Sutherland—a legend among aficionados of venomous creatures, and the founder of the AVRU. He passed away in 2002 and Fry, the then deputy director of the AVRU, was going through the uncatalogued parts of his inventory.
He was amazed by what he found. These weren’t just any old samples. They had been collected by the so-called “snake men”: an amazing group of herpetologists, including Budden, who trekked through the outback and collected the most dangerous snakes around. From the 1930s and onwards, they captured tiger snakes, brown snakes, taipans, and more, so they could be milked for their venom. These samples were used to make antivenoms that have saved countless lives. And Fry was looking at them. There, for example, was the venom of the taipan that killed Kevin Budden.
“It was like opening a time capsule,” he says. “It gave me goosebumps. These were very personal samples to us. To be working with the milkings from that exact snake… these weren’t just letters on the side of the tube. They had historical and emotional value.”
They also had something that Fry did not expect—toxicity. Even though some of them were 80 years old, they could still kill.
It’s not like the samples had been carefully prepared. They had been crudely dried, kept in glass tubes with rubber stoppers, and stored at room temperature rather than in a freezer.
Still, Fry’s team found that they contained the same cocktail of proteins and had the same toxic effects as venom that had been recently collected from modern snakes of the same species. Death adder venom from the 1960s could still stop neurons from communicating with muscles. Taipan and tiger snake venom from the 1950s could still clot blood. The only vial that contained ineffective venom was also the only one where the rubber seal had eroded. Otherwise, the toxins were in great shape.
To Fry, the collection isn’t just a vault of historical artefacts. It’s also a goldmine for research. “Now we’ve shown that they’re stable, we’re going to be continually working with them,” he says.
Why? Because there’s a long history of developing important medicines from animal venoms, and Fry is always on the lookout for substances that could lead to tomorrow’s drugs. And the greater the diversity of venom he has to work with, the more likely he is to find something.
Some of the samples in the historical collection were taken from populations of snakes that have since been wiped out. At least 12 percent of snakes are currently threatened with extinction, and Fry believes we should intensify our efforts to collect venom samples now, while we still have the chance. It’s clear that once collected, those samples can be used for experiments for decades, even if their donors disappear.
Other samples came from snakes that no one has milked since, like tiger snakes living on four Australian islands. Since island animals are genetically isolated from their mainland counterparts, and face different evolutionary pressures, they often evolve in new and unusual ways.
“The venoms from the islands are most likely to contain something interesting,” says Fry. “[These samples] save us the trouble of going to there ourselves.”