Snakebite Cures (Sort of)

People fear venomous snakes. Well, most of them do. And with pretty good reason—a bite from some species means possible death. Luckily dangerous snake bites happen very infrequently because most snakes are harmless (unless you live in Australia), and snakes generally prefer to hide out of harm’s way, safe from potential predators like ourselves. This post won’t focus so much on encounters between people and snakes or the likelihood of snakebite, but you can read some excellent posts on those topics on the blogs Living Alongside Wildlife or Life Is Short, but Snakes are Long. (Really, check these out sometime. They’re eye-opening whether you love or hate the reptiles.)

Even though dangerous encounters between humans and venomous snake species don’t occur often, when they do occur, the situation can be so dire that humans have gone to great efforts over the course of history to find the cure for snakebite.

Scientists "milk" venom from snakes for use in antivenom development. Photo: Amirki via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists “milk” venom from snakes for use in antivenom development.
Photo: Amirki via Wikimedia Commons

A Roman author writing nearly 2,000 years ago mentioned cures for snakebite in his 17-book compilation of stories and natural history of the animal kingdom.

The bite of a viper and of other snakes can be counteracted with remedies, some drunk, others placed on the wound. There are spells that can undo poison, too. Only the bite of the asp, I hear, cannot be cured. For its ability to cause so much damage, the asp deserves our enmity. Even more baleful and relentless than an asp, though, is the sorceress, along the lines of Medea and Circe. An asp has to bite in order to poison, but a sorceress can kill simply by touching a person, or so it is said.

(Aelian, On the Nature of Animals)

Even then the natural historians correctly noted that people pose more danger to people than even the most dangerous of snakes pose to people. However, woe to those bitten by species of viper called the asp, if you believe the above passage. He later contradicts the above statement of the incurability of asp bites, though, stating that some make it through the ordeal.

It is a fact that some men recover from the bite of an asp. They do so by cutting out the poison, or surviving cauterization, or somehow preventing the spread of the venom through the radical application of medicines.

(Aelian, On the Nature of Animals)

We mustn’t overly trust the methods by which “some men” recovered from asp bite. The “cutting out” of the poison and cauterization of wounds are two remedies still in occasional use across the world, but they are ineffective and can do a fair amount of bodily harm to victims. Likewise, attempts to suck venom out of a wound has been shown by several studies to have little if any positive effect, not surprising considering that even a modern pump designed specifically for removal of snake venom was found to remove lots of bodily fluids but no “mock venom” in a trial on human volunteers (Alberts et al 2004.) Moreover, the use of this method with incision over the snakebite has the potential to cause damage, infection, and excessive bleeding.

The long-championed (until rather recently) liquor treatment also seems not to do much good, surprising as that may be.

Booze came into use many centuries ago, and has remained in use even in the last century:

As early as 1577, William Harrison wrote “… the venom … ascend[s] upward to the heart, where it finisheth the natural effect, except the juice of dragons (in Latin called dracunculus minor) be speedily administered and drunk in strong ale.” This is at least a little more subtle than the old Arkansan’s remedy: “Th’ best way tuh use likker for snakebite is tuh have it in yuh when yuh get bit.”

(Jeffrey 1955)

We do well to worry about this latter Arkansan “preventative” liquor, considering that many snakebite accidents in the U.S. involve booze-induced stupidity around reptiles.

Whisk(e)y and venomous snakes are best enjoyed separately. Photo: Paul Joseph via Wikimedia Commons

Whisk(e)y and venomous snakes are best enjoyed separately.
Photo: Paul Joseph via Wikimedia Commons

We find the use of alcoholic beverages as a treatment throughout time and space. In the late 1800s we have an account of a man bitten by a coral snake in Florida whose treatment included bicarbonate of soda, sub-nitrate of bismuth, aromatic spirits of ammonia, and, of course, French brandy (True 1883). This last ingredient was prescribed in greater quantity than the others. The patient escaped with his life.

A doctor writing in the 1930s gave an account of snakebite treatment in Sudan that included a root ground up and mixed with millet beer. Dr. Corkill displays some sarcasm regarding the use of alcohol in both Sudan and Europe, but has a hypothesis as to why it might be (unscientifically) considered useful:

The soporific and anodyne effects of alcohol have no doubt had much to do with the widespread use of massive doses of it in snake-poisoning. None the less it seems reasonable to allot the major inspiration to animism. Snake-poisoning is possession by a ginn, and what is more natural than that the beneficent divinity inherent in the sacred liquor should dispossess the spirit of evil of the poisoned body? The unscientific consumption of large quantities of “spirits” in the shape of whisky (usquebaugh) and brandy (eau de vie) by Europeans when bitten by snakes is well known to be commonplace.”

(Corkill 1935)

Interpretation: if you think that snake envenomation results from possession by an evil spirit (a ginn) then get the ginn drunk so that it will go away. If you’re European and don’t believe in ginns… well, at least the alcohol might dull the pain.

So we see the treatment of snakebite with whisk(e)y or other spirits ranging in place from North America to Africa to Australia and on, and ranging in time across centuries. Luckily, more sophisticated treatments have become available in the last century.

European colonialism/imperialism in the 1800s meant that Europeans who hadn’t previously lived among many (if any) dangerous snake species in their cold northern climates found themselves in places like India or Australia, where venomous snakes abound. They found this rather concerning. A look into the literature of the late 1800s shows that several doctors in various continents on one end of imperialism or the other worked hard to find cures more “scientific” than those previously in use, including one doctor in Australia who seemed to think that copious amounts of whiskey did not, in fact, help prevent death from envenomation. He strongly advocated for treatment with strychnine, a known poison that causes convulsions (Mueller 1893). Although the poison normally would cause death in the doses that he administered, he was convinced that despite the medical world’s lack of knowledge about exactly how snake venom worked in the body, strychnine worked in exactly the opposite way, causing the two chemicals to cancel each other out. Vocal as he was, the treatment didn’t quite catch on.

The British felt very much distraught in the face of the venomous creatures in their imperial domain, particularly in India and Australia. They became rather self-important about the mission to find a cure for snakebite: “The matter is of the greatest practical importance to a nation which has made itself responsible for the welfare of a country in which 20,000 human beings lose their lives every year by the bites of venomous serpents.” (anonymous writer, 1895) Map: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The British felt very much distraught in the face of the venomous creatures in their imperial domain, particularly in India and Australia. Some of them became rather self-important about the mission to find a cure for snakebite: “The matter is of the greatest practical importance to a nation which has made itself responsible for the welfare of a country in which 20,000 human beings lose their lives every year by the bites of venomous serpents.” (anonymous writer, 1895)
Map: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

At about the same time, another scientist realized that just as a person who receives a vaccine or contracts a disease can develop antibodies to prevent future infection of that disease, a person can also develop antibodies to snake venom as long as they receive a dose lower than the minimum lethal dose on the first injection (Fraser 1895). This approach makes sense when one considers that snake venom comprises a complex cocktail of enzymes and other compounds, making it in many ways much more similar to diseases than to relatively simple poisons like strychnine or arsenic. The Englishman Dr. Fraser obtained many venom samples from India (remember the imperial connection) and with them experimentally determined the minimum lethal dose of the various snake venoms on several types of animals. He then took animals of the same species and gradually worked them from a tiny dose up to the minimum lethal dose and beyond, demonstrating inoculation, though he did not understand the mechanism:

As yet no sufficient data have been obtained for affording an explanation of these remarkable facts. It is obvious that the blood of protected animals must contain some substance or substances which are not present in the non-protected animals, by which the lethal and toxic effects of venoms are prevented.

(Fraser 1895)

Without even knowing how this immunity came about, it occurred to the doctor that perhaps this immunity could be transferred between organisms—perhaps if you immunize one animal against venom, you could take some component of its blood, inject it into another animal, and then the second animal would have immunity without itself being inoculated with increasing doses of venom. Final experiments involved drying the serum (a component of blood not including red or white blood cells) of inoculated animals for long storage, then injecting it into a non-inoculated animal, and also injecting the latter animal with snake venom. In some cases the injection was mixed serum and venom, in some cases there were two separate simultaneous injections of serum and venom. The serum worked as a powerful antidote to the venom.

Think about the awesomeness of this piece of scientific history!

For the actual application of the antivenene to the treatment of snake poisoning in man, an endeavour is being made to obtain the large quantity that is requisite from a horse now receiving considerable lethal doses of cobra venom. From this source, also, it is hoped that a sufficient quantity will be obtained to allow of the examination of the chemical properties of the antivenene to be continued, with the object of discovering the constituent or constituents by which the antidotal effects are produced.

(Fraser 1895)

The above process of obtaining serum from inoculated horses (or other large animals, like sheep) remains to this day, more than a century later, the main way to produce life-saving antivenom.

 

References

Aelian. On the Nature of Animals. Translated by Gregory McNamee. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2011.

Alberts, Michael B., Marc Shalit, and Fred LoGalbo. 2004.Suction for venomous snakebite: A study of “mock venom” extraction in a human model. Annals of Emergency Medicine 43(2): 181-188. Link

anonymous. 1895. The Production of immunity against snake poison. The British Medical Journal 1(1798): 1339-1340.

Corkill, N.L. 1935. Snake stories from Kordofan. Sudan Notes and Records 18(2): 243-258. Link

Fraser, Thomas R. 1895. On the rendering of animals immune against the venom of cobras and other serpents ; and On the antidotal properties of the blood serum of the immunised animals. The British Medical Journal 1(1798): 1309-1312. Link

Jeffrey, Lloyd N. 1955. Snake yarns of the West and Southwest. Western Folklore 14(4): 246-258. Link

Mueller, A. On Snake Poison. Its Action and its Antidote. Sydney: L. Bruck, Medical Publisher, 1893. Link

True, Frederick W. 1883. On the bite of the North American coral snakes (Genus Elaps). The American Naturalist 17(1): 26-31. Link

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