Venomous encounters

Snakes, vivisection and scientific medicine in colonial Australia

By Peter Hobbins

Venomous encounters


  • eBook

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-0144-0
  • Pages: 216
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £85.00
  • Published Date: January 2017
  • BIC Category: Animals & Society, Humanities / Australasian & Pacific history, Humanities / Colonialism & imperialism, Medicine / History of medicine, Modern History, History of Medicine, History, History of medicine, Colonialism & imperialism, Australasian & Pacific history, Australasia, HISTORY / General, MEDICAL / History, HISTORY / Australia & New Zealand
  • Series: Studies in Imperialism


How do we know which snakes are dangerous? This seemingly simple question caused constant concern for the white settlers who colonised Australia after 1788. Facing a multitude of serpents in the bush, their fields and their homes, colonists wanted to know which were the harmful species and what to do when bitten. But who could provide this expertise? Liberally illustrated with period images, Venomous encounters argues that much of the knowledge about which snakes were deadly was created by observing snakebite in domesticated creatures, from dogs to cattle. Originally accidental, by the middle of the nineteenth century this process became deliberate. Doctors, naturalists and amateur antidote sellers all caused snakes to bite familiar creatures in order to demonstrate the effects of venom - and the often erratic impact of 'cures'. In exploring this culture of colonial vivisection, Venomous encounters asks fundamental questions about human-animal relationships and the nature of modern medicine.


'A really well-presented work that would be of great interest to a wide range of scholars. It makes several important suggestions regarding the nature of colonial scientific practices that substantially adds to our understanding of them. I would recommend it to anyone interested in imperial history, history of science/medicine and the growing field of animal humanities.'
Saurabh Mishra, University of Sheffield, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

'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.
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.'
Rahul Bhaumik, Jadavpur University, Social History of Medicine, Vol 31, Issue 3, August 2018

'In six meticulously crafted chapters, Peter Hobbins provides an insightful and vibrant history of an animal that featured prominently in the imperial "ecology of dread" (p. 3), offering a local, national, and transnational history of scientific and lay efforts to prevent the effects of snake venom through vivisection.'
Lloyd Price, Cardiff University, Environmental History, Vol. 23, No. 4, October 2018


1. Serpents and settlers: the colonial animal matrix, 1788-1840
2. Vivisection in the pub: public spectacles and plebeian expertise, 1840-80
3. Ontological conjunctions: dogs, snakes, venoms and germs, 1843-68
4. In vivo veritas: the amoral ascent of colonial vivisection, 1868-76
5. Legislators and other animals: foregrounding vivisection, 1876-95
6. Immunology and indigeneity: species, serums and localisms, 1890-1914


Peter Hobbins is Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sydney, Australia

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