A Serpentine Arms Race: S. Weir Mitchell, George Halford, and the Most Venomous of Snakes

by Dr. Peter Hobbins*


The title of ‘world’s deadliest snake’ has long been contested, and remains difficult to adjudicate. The criteria are varied, including: 1) the annual human death toll; 2) the innate toxicity of the venom for laboratory animals; 3) the rarity of the serpent, and 4) whether it is a shy or aggressive species. The clinical impact of bites, whether leading to rapid death from respiratory paralysis, awful and extensive ulceration, or permanent disability, tends to be a lower-level consideration – except, naturally, for those who have been bitten.

Until the 1860s, however, it was unclear whether there was any meaningful difference between the venoms of poisonous snakes around the world. Indeed, for centuries it had been presumed that they all possessed the same ubiquitous ‘venom’. The potency of their bites was instead believed to depend largely upon environmental factors, such as the ambient temperature, and especially by the malevolence of the serpent itself. “The cause of the Venom is to be imputed to the Spirits enraged”, wrote French apothecary Moyse Charas in 1670, “and not to any other thing or parts in the Vipers body”.

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