The year 2017 saw a remarkable surge of scholarly publications on the history of medical-zoological engagement with snakes and their venoms across different geographical and cultural locations.1 Amongst these fresh and important contributions, Peter Hobbins’s Venomous Encounters is an exquisite attempt to illuminate the hitherto overlooked features of ‘toxic histories’ by foregrounding the presence of venomous snakes in colonial Australia and their potency in shaping the meanings and boundaries of ‘scientific medicine’ from 1788 to 1914.2 Written clearly, Hobbins’s book explores the fascinating story of colonial encounters and vivisectional experimentations with animals and their toxins, specifically through the scientific characterisation of snakes and the nature, composition and action of their venoms. In doing so, it quite compellingly demonstrates the ubiquity of non-humans in the antipodean toxicological research culture. Hobbins’s book is neatly arranged into six main chapters, a well-knit introduction and a pithy concluding section. In these six chapters, in a chronological and elaborate thematic order, the author embarks on an ambitious effort to ‘rewrite beasts back into consideration, both as sentient beings and as integral participants in the emergent structures of colonial science’ (p. 164). The introduction effectively sets up the historical context for further discussions particularly relating to ‘vivisection’—including the prominent and widespread practice of empirical testing of venom in familiar animals to ascertain the intensity of envenomation—which emerged as a new thread of empiricism, especially after 1840, and was frequently undertaken by both lay and professional medical practitioners throughout the Australian colonies. This practice justified huge animal sufferings and deaths and yet was regarded as ethically unproblematic, as practitioners denied moral considerations for non-humans involved in experimental pathology. Chapter 1 illustrates a unique concept—what the author calls ‘the colonial animal matrix’, operated like the moralistic Hindu game vaikunthapaali or the game of snakes and ladders, where particular creatures might ascend, descend or vanish forever through neglect or extirpation, reflecting the dynamic perceptions of their moral, sentimental and commercial worth. It was within this larger schema, that the folk biology of Australian snakes was gradually fashioned and dramatically changed by the continuing practice of vivisection. Chapter 2, which deals with ‘vivisection in the pub’ chiefly by snake charmers and antidote spruikers (touts) to publicly determine the deadliest envenomation and its cure, is most interesting. Concentrating upon the colonial pursuit of ‘the usual remedies’ for snake-poisoning, this chapter experiences the settlers’ engagement with Aboriginal medicine and their embracing of the spectacle and epistemology of vivisection. It discloses how vivisectional demonstrations before general audiences became a crucial tool for the lay understanding of the antipodean animal world. While a wide and often-sophisticated knowledge of the ‘virus’ of snake was clearly present in early colonial Australia, Chapter 3 indicates that toxicology as a science dedicated to the study of the ‘nature’ of venom did not commence until the 1840s. Specifically outlining George Halford’s conspicuous and controversial theory of microscopic ‘germinal matter’, this chapter features procreation of novel epistemological and ontological possibilities across multiple sites of empire. The next chapter does a great job of comparing Australian with Indian colonial conditions. It shows how snakes, venoms and newly popularised devices such as the hypodermic syringe dominated British medical and therapeutic discourses in the nineteenth century. Contextually it also demonstrates how, although increasingly instrumentalised and morally devalued, experimental animals often became able to ‘speak’ as historical actors. Chapter 5 draws linkages between two distinct but related colonial developments: the promulgation of the Protection of Animals Act of 1881 in colonial Victoria to formally regulate vivisection in the context of the animal welfare movement, and the triumph of a novel injected remedy—subcutaneous strychnine—championed by a rural Victorian doctor Augustus Mueller. In the final chapter, Hobbins again demonstrates his ability in contrasting Australia with British India and French Indo-China and attests that the superimposition of medical knowledge from one geographical location to another does not always work well. Hobbins’s monograph, derived from a prize-winning PhD thesis, has made use of a commendable range of archival and published sources. The figures are finely laid out and well printed, although not always complemented by the text. Elaborate depictions of scientific experiments and their implications sometimes wear down the reader. What seems to be missing is a detailed glossary explaining the contemporary scientific terms. Still, this thoughtful history adds an excellent new perspective to the existing historiography repudiating the dominant claim that vivisection rarely occurred beyond Europe and was undertaken by non-specialist laities. Footnotes 1 Jutta Schickore, About Method: Experimenters, Snake Venom, and the History of Writing Scientifically (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017); Michael Slouber, Early Tantric Medicine: Snakebite, Mantras, and Healing in the Gāruḍa Tantras (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 2 For ‘toxic histories’, see David Arnold, Toxic Histories: Poison and Pollution in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine.
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 8, 2018
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