by David Williams
The capture of a live taipan for early venom research costs a young Sydney man his life.
On the second last day of his life, Kevin Budden fulfilled a dream. Not the sort of dream aspired to by most 20-year old men, mind you, but a significant dream nonetheless. Budden dreamt not of motor cars, pretty women, a career or secure family life, but of a singularly fantastic feat - the capture alive, of a taipan snake!
An amateur snake collector from Randwick in the inner-east of Sydney, Kevin was on his second trip to far north Queensland in search of specimens, not only for his own collection, but also for sale to museums, zoos and overseas traders. The year before, in April, 1949 he and two other herpetologists, Roy Mackay and Neville Goddard had travelled north to Coen on Cape York Peninsula searching for taipans from which venom could be obtained for research. Despite their enthusiasm, the trio only had two encounters with snakes they believed to be taipans.
On 29 April, 1949 while Kevin had gone ahead to Coen airfield to collect some mail, Roy and Neville were walking along the track behind when a large snake crossed the path in front of them, heading toward a large termite mound. Roy moved to the west of the mound and called to Neville saying that he could see the snake which was around 7 feet in length and honey brown in colour. Neville, who was on the eastern side of the mound in a "sea of long grass" believes that he felt the snakes presence before looking down to see it pass at full speed between his two bare legs, its tail lashing his sandal clad foot.
Australian Herpetologists Roy Mackay, Neville Goddard and Kevin Budden prior to their April, 1949 expedition to north Queensland in search of a live taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus).
Recalling the story some 43 years later, Neville Goddard recalls that the snake apparently did not detect his presence, and made no move to bite, its only desire being to escape from Roy. In describing the encounter Neville said "I didn't have the slightest hope of grabbing the tail, its speed was indeed much greater than any snake I have ever encountered and that is a great number of many species..."
According to Neville, the other sighting was reported to them by local aborigines who saw a large brown snake in the bed of the Coen River cross onto a small islet. Although the trio of snake hunters spent hours watching for the reptile, it eluded them and they eventually returned home, minus a taipan.
The following year Neville Goddard had hoped to travel to Africa handling venomous snakes and other animals for a film company but was begged by Kevin's mother to accompany her son back to north Queensland. Neither occurred however, as Neville was subsequently required to go to the Admiralty Islands to work with Japanese War Criminals instead.
The second expedition.....
In June, 1950 Kevin said goodbye to his friends and family yet again, and began the long journey north alone, confident that this time his luck would see him return with a taipan. Four weeks of tramping around in lush rainforest between Atherton and Millaa Millaa in the Tablelands had produced 27 prime specimens, including several pythons and tree snakes that were sure to fetch a fine price back home. Travelling to Cairns, he found accommodation at the Cairns Museum and planned a careful search of the local area.
Having acquainted himself with many people in the local area, Kevin had heard dire warnings of the dangers presented by large brown snakes in the area from many quarters. Despite these words of caution, he remained determined to find a taipan, and capture it alive. After word reached him that a big brown snake had been killed under a house on the north-western outskirts of town, he became convinced that it was a taipan, and made plans to investigate.
Shortly before sunrise on the morning of 27 July, 1950 the young collector set out from his lodgings in Cairns, walking along Sheridan Street (the main road north) to open scrub country bordering what is now Anderson Street, Manunda - one of the booming tropical cities busiest arterial roads servicing sprawling suburbs such as Manunda, Whitfield and Edge Hill.
As is often the case, snake hunting is a slow laborious task, taking many hours of back breaking work, as each piece of suitable ground cover - rocks, logs, scrap iron and rubbish - is individually checked for specimens. At around ten o'clock, his meandering had brought him within a few hundred yards to the west of the Edge Hill oil tanks at the base of Mt. Whitfield, with nothing more favourable than a dozen or so cane toads, some small lizards and a harmless water snake to show for his efforts. Disappointed, Budden was preparing to call it quits for the day when a piercing squeal emanating from a pile of rubbish nearby attracted his attention.
Searching quickly through the loose rubble, his heart racing with adrenaline, Kevin uncovered the source of the noise. Beneath a sheet of discarded fibro., among a nest of twigs and grass stalks was a large brown snake - just now beginning to consume the female bush rat that the nest had contained. Shaking with excitement the wiry snakeman quickly moved to trap the startled snake by putting his boot firmly across its neck, prompting the enraged reptile to regurgitate its intended meal and thrash violently in a vain attempt to bite the attacker.
Carefully avoiding the deadly fangs, Kevin slipped his fingers around the snakes’ neck, keeping his boot in place until he was absolutely sure of the grip. Unable now to reach the sack on the ground beside him, he lifted the snake off the ground, allowing it to twist its body in his hands as it endeavoured to pull free. With no way to secure the reptile, he opted instead to walk with it along the bush track that led to the Edge Hill road, hoping that once there, someone might come along to assist him.
Reaching the road just before 10.30 a.m., his luck continued to hold when a passing truck slowed and stopped just down the road, before steadily reversing back to where he stood with his prize.
Relieved beyond belief, and suffering from tightly cramped fingers - the result of the awkward grip on the snakes' neck - Budden climbed into the truck, introduced himself to Jim Harris, the driver, and explained his strange catch, causing the fellow to reflexively pull away in his seat with fear. Quickly explaining that his hold was still good and that the snake would be vital to research, Budden asked to be taken into Edge Hill to the home of a local snake catcher who could identify his find and help bag it safely away.
On arrival, Mr Stephens', the snake expert promptly confirmed the reptile as being a taipan, and sent his wife off in search of a suitable bag. Jim Harris remembers that Kevin's hand was quite liberally coated with saliva and other fluid from the snake's mouth, and that at this point Budden's till now tenacious grip failed, and in a moment of distraction as the snake was being lowered into the bag, it promptly wrenched free and in two lightning fast strikes succeeded in fastening itself very firmly onto his left hand. Although this movement caused him to drop the snake in surprise, the lad recovered quickly and recaptured the snake, after which it was safely bagged.
While Stephen's ran to the house to telephone ambulance bearer's, Harris implored Kevin to ligature the arm and scarify the wounds on his hand. After applying a rope ligature, Budden refused the suggestions of Stephens' and Harris to scarify the wound, claiming that snake 'fright' was more a problem than the actual venom, and it was only after promising not to harm the snake that Jim Harris was able to load Budden and his catch into the truck again, and race off toward town, meeting the ambulance on the way. While he was being transferred into the ambulance, the victim begged Jim to look after the snake, and see it safely into the hands of others who would ensure that it would be safely transported south to researchers. Even though he would have happily seen the reptile destroyed on the spot, the truckie agreed, and true to his word Jim kept the deadly cargo locked in his truck until the next day. Meanwhile, ambulance bearer's applied further first aid before setting off at speed for the Base Hospital, to the sights and sounds of flashing red beacons and a wailing klaxon.
27 hours later, Kevin Budden's disregard for his own safety, and single-minded determination to have the live snake retained for research work cost him his life. With no effective antivenom therapy available, the battle was lost right from the moment the snake struck. All efforts by medical staff at Cairns Base Hospital failed one by one, and he died at 1.30 p.m., on 28 July, 1950.
Late that evening, Neville Goddard, having just arrived at his destination in the Admiralty Islands overheard the tail end of a brief newsflash on Radio Australia reporting the death of a snake expert from snakebite. Neville says that even though the victim's name wasn't given, he knew instinctively that it was his mate Kevin. After an agonising night of worry, the next bulletin confirmed his greatest fears...
Far to the south, in a small house in St. Luke Street, Randwick, Kevin's father, Don stood before the shaving mirror performing his morning ablutions. Listening to the 6.00 am bulletin over the wireless, his hand froze and the lather sodden razor tumbled to the floor as news of the tragedy filled the room. Pale, trembling, and with moisture welling in his eyes, the distraught man staggered up the hall to his family...
Kevin Clifford Budden, aged 20 years, was buried in the Cairns Cemetery three days later. The Budden family were far from well off, and as if the loss of their beloved son and brother were not enough, financial pressures only made it possible to send Kevin's sister Dorothy and her husband north to take charge of this sad obligation.
Besieged by press reporters and others almost from the moment word of Kevin's death arrived, the family suffered their loss dreadfully - Kevin's father never recovered from the boy's death, and died a broken man only seven month's later.
Arriving in Cairns by plane for the funeral, Dorothy avoided press reporters at the airport, and was disgusted the next day when insensitive journalists printed an account containing fictitious quotes in her name. The Budden family interred him in Cairns believing that Kevin would have wanted to remain in the far north that he so greatly loved, and as a consequence he rests but a few hundred yards from the scrubland where he began the search that led to his last capture on that fateful morning in July. The truck driver, Jim Harris was among his pallbearers.
But hope for others...
As a result of Kevin's efforts, and with the help of Jim Harris and others the snake eventually found its way to Melbourne, where it was milked by David Fleay for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, producing some 128 mg of dried venom. Several weeks later, it too died, and can now be seen among the many specimens held at the National Museum in Melbourne.
Prior to this specimen becoming available the only samples of taipan venom had come from the two specimens collected on Cape York by McLennan in 1923, and since these were contaminated, little value came from their analysis. Venom from Budden's taipan was therefore considered invaluable to the early moves of researchers to develop an antivenom, and his death in many ways stimulated the drive for further sources of venom, leading to antivenom availability in 1955.
Interestingly, it may not have been the only taipan Kevin encountered. After his death, his sister, Dorothy Dale returned to Sydney with Kevin's belongings, among them a camera and exposed film. Dorothy developed these shots, and over the last 42 years they have been safely deposited inside Kevin's photograph album, along with pictures of his 1949 expedition to Coen with Neville Goddard and Roy Mackay.
Among the photographs taken on his last trip is one of a freshly killed taipan, coiled on paper, with a match holding the jaws apart to display the fangs. Sadly, Kevin appears not to have diarised his exploits, as he had on other excursions, so the circumstances of this find may well remain a mystery, although it is quite possible that this snake may be the one killed in the vicinity of Anderson Street the day before his expedition to that area. The news of Kevin Budden's death echoed around Australia and was widely reported in the media beneath headlines such as:
"MAN DIES AFTER BITE FROM TAIPAN", "TAIPAN BIT HIM: HE HELD ON" and "DEADLY VENOM TO SAVE LIVES"
Three reproduced accounts of Budden's tragic demise give a thorough description of events.
The first, an article from The Cairns Post Newspaper of 28 July, 1950 which reports on Budden's bite and admission to the local hospital: -
TAIPAN BITES MAN AT EDGE HILL
Sydney Collector's Condition Serious - Snake was Taken Alive
A young Sydney snake collector, Mr.Keith (sic) Budden, was bitten by a taipan in scrub near Friend-street, Edge Hill, yesterday morning and is in a serious condition.
The taipan is the second largest venomous snake in the world and is the deadliest found in Australia.
Mr.Budden, who last night could hardly speak and who had partly lost his vision, from the effects of the venom, said that he had captured the snake alive. He was bitten on the left hand at 10.30 o'clock and was given first aid by the Cairns ambulance and rushed to hospital.
Mr.Budden arrived in Cairns last week from the Millaa Millaa district where he had been snake hunting for about a month.
It is his second trip to the Far North in search of rare snakes. Mr.Budden said last week that he particularly wanted to catch a taipan for scientific work.
On the present trip, he caught 27 snakes ranging from a 14 foot python, weighing about 30 lb., to attractively coloured harmless tree snakes about six inches long.
The snakes are for museums in the south, and also for export to other parts of the world. Mr.Budden's taipan will be the first brought to civilisation alive.
It was reported late last night that Budden had been placed on the dangerously ill list. He had been given treatment in an iron lung at the hospital.
As the residents of Cairns read this report, Budden's condition was entering its terminal phase. He died in the iron lung at Cairns Base Hospital despite desperate attempts by medical staff to stabilise his condition. The next day, 29 July, 1950, The Cairns Post followed up the above report with news of Budden's death: -
Kevin Budden at the Roma Street Railway Station in Brisbane enroute to attempt the capture of a taipan snake in north Queensland (Photo: Neville Goddard)
TAIPAN VICTIM DIES IN HOSPITAL
Live Snake At Museum To Be Sent South To Aid Science
The 20 year old Sydney snake collector, Keith (sic) Budden, of Randwick, died in the Cairns Base Hospital at 1.30 p.m. yesterday from the effect of a taipan snake bite he received on Thursday morning.
The taipan, first to be captured alive, is being kept in a bag at the North Queensland Museum, Cairns, and the museum chairman (Mr.J.G.Brooks) said yesterday that the snake would be air freighted to the south when it was learned what Mr.Budden had intended to do with the specimen.
Mr.S.E.Stephens, of Edge Hill, who identified the snake as a taipan shortly before it bit Mr.Budden, said that the collector had told him that several organisations wanted a live taipan for scientific experiments, but he believed that the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory was particularly interested, as they wished to discover an antivenene for taipan bite.
No Antidote For Poison
Dr.K.Benn, of the Cairns Base Hospital, who attended the patient, said that Budden had been conscious up to half an hour of his death and had been "confident to the end" that he would recover from the poison. There is only one previous case on record of a man recovering from a taipan bite.
Dr.Benn said that Budden had died because there was no known anti-venene for one of the two types of poison in the taipan venom. This poison paralysed the nervous system and the symptoms of this could only be treated as they appeared.
He said that Budden had been placed in an iron lung without result. Toward the end the patient's respiration had been affected, and finally the nerve centres controlling the work of the heart had been affected.
The other type of poison, which coagulated the blood of the victim, had been successfully treated with tiger snake anti-venene, said Dr.Benn.
Stayed Calm When Bitten
"He was a game little bloke and as cool as they come," said Mr.J.Harris, of Sheridan-street, Cairns, yesterday, who picked Budden up in his truck near the Edge Hill oil tanks shortly after the collector had captured the taipan in scrub country at 10.30 a.m.
"I pulled up the truck and asked him what he had," said Mr.Harris. "He told me that he thought it was a taipan, and he asked me to drive him to Mr.Stephens' home at Edge Hill as he was an authority on taipans and could identify it properly".
Mr.Harris added: "I drove him to Mr.Stephens' home and he sat next to me in the cab holding the snake in his hands all the way. He told me that he had trodden on it in rubble and had caught it, after it had struck at his boot".
When Mr.Stephens had identified the snake his wife went to get a bag, and as Mr.Budden was putting the snake inside, its head wriggled free from his grasp and it struck twice, Mr.Harris said.
Saw Snake Strike
"It bit deeply into his left hand and then got away. He caught it again and held it out at arm's length by the tail and told Mr.Stephens how to put a ligature on his arm. I wanted to kill the thing, but he would not let me. He kept saying that it was important for scientific research, and he had come to the far north specially to capture one," said Mr.Harris.
Mr Harris said that the ambulance was phoned and he started off for the hospital and met the ambulance on the way. "Mr.Budden was given first-aid. He remained calm all the time and insisted that someone look after the snake," he added. The taipan is at present inside two bags behind locked doors at the Cairns Museum.
Two days after Kevin's death the taipan which killed him took the long journey south to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne, Victoria. T.A.A. (now QANTAS/Australian Airlines) flew the reptile first to Brisbane, and then to Melbourne. Upon arrival the reptile remained in a locked room, still in the original hessian bags and timber crate, while plans were made to extract its venom.
On August 1, 1950 Melbourne zoologist David Fleay, working in a room at the National Museum extracted venom from the snake on behalf of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories. By all accounts this was the first-ever milking of a live taipan snake (venom collected by McLennan in the 1920’s was obtained from dead reptiles), and drew considerable attention from the news media of the day.
News of this dangerous assignment was widely reported, and occupied a prominent position on page 1 of the Cairns Post the next day: -
CAIRNS TAIPAN ATTEMPTS TO STRIKE MELBOURNE SNAKE EXPERT
MELBOURNE, AUG. 1. - The taipan snake which killed a collector, Keith Budden, at Cairns last week reared its head off the floor and prepared to strike snake expert David Fleay at the Melbourne Museum to-day.
However, Mr.Fleay quickly seized it with the powerful clamps of his snake stick and it spat its deadly venom into a medicine glass. Before the taipan was released for "milking" the doors and windows of the room were locked.
When the snake was dispatched from Cairns it was inside two sealed sugar bags and a box. However the taipan apparently found a weak spot in the inner bag and squeezed itself out.
When Mr.Fleay opened the first bag on the floor of the preparatory room he saw, instead of another closed sack, the taipan stirring in the sudden light. He quickly tilted the bag and the snake fell on the floor.
Before Mr.Fleay could seize it with his snake stick the taipan reared its ugly head 18 inches off the floor and prepared to strike. Mr.Fleay expertly lunged with the six-foot long snake stick, pressed the trigger, and the taipan was caught, ready to be "milked" of its poison. The chief preparator (Mr.R.Boswell) later said: "We all got a shock when the taipan appeared so suddenly."
Dr.Morgan said: "We obtained a satisfactory amount of poison. The taipan buried its long fangs into a sheet of rubber over a medicine glass I held, and the poison was pumped into the glass. We shall take it back to the laboratory where we will use it for a variety of research purposes." The taipan may be worth up to £2000, according to how long it lives and how useful it is to science. Making this estimate to-day, the National Museum director (Mr.R.Pescott) said the museum was holding the snake in trust for the dead man's estate.
This report was followed on August 3, 1950 by two further stories, which are interesting to record:-
EXPERIMENTS ON CAIRNS TAIPAN
Scientists Confident Will Find Antidote
MELBOURNE, AUG.2. - Scientists at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories to-day will begin experiments which they are confident will give the world the first antidote for the deadly taipan snake bite. Laboratory workers said to-day that their researches might lead to the discovery of antivenines for other deadly snakes. The director of the laboratory (Dr.F.C.Morgan) said to-night that the experiments, which might be dangerous, would take months to complete.
To-day, venom extracted from the taipan by Dr.Morgan and zoologist David Fleay at the National Museum yesterday, was put into a desiccator and crystallised.
Laboratory workers estimated to-day that the few drachm of venom taken from the snake in two "milkings" were sufficient to kill 150 men. Scientists will test the "toxicity" for actual killing power of the venom on mice, rabbits, and guinea pigs.
Immediately following this account was a further brief story: -
TAIPAN IN MAIL
SYDNEY, AUG.2. - A deadly taipan snake may be sleeping in a mailbag somewhere between Queensland and Sydney. Snake expert Eric Worrell (26) of Woy Woy, some time ago received advice from his Brisbane agent that a taipan was on its way to him by mail.
Worrell, who is setting up a snake pit at Woy Woy, said that the taipan probably would sleep until the spring. He is writing to the Brisbane agent to find out what has happened to the snake.
Worrell thinks that someone may open his mail (a bag inside two boxes) and receive a nasty surprise.
Infact taipan mania occupied the pages of the Cairns Post for weeks in the aftermath of Kevin's death. Regular updates on the taipans condition, ranging from its first drink of water to the successful anaesthetising of the snake for purposes of making a plaster cast were all dutifully reported.
David Fleay later wrote his own account of the milking of Budden's taipan in an article published in the natural history magazine, Animal Kingdom. Fleay recorded his first glimpse of the reptile as follows: -
"...And what a beauty it was! Six feet five inches long, in the finest possible condition, its orange-red eyes glittering, the white upper lip emphasising the mouth, and only a few scales missing from the middle of the back - a superficial blemish probably sustained at the time of capture. And just as I feared, the heat of the room had put it in a most active and dangerous state. Its copper-brown body looped menacingly and it struck repeatedly to right and left."
Fleay milked the snake, assisted by Dr Morgan and Roy Goodisson. Just like the unfortunate Kevin Budden, he also found that getting the snake into a bag was no easy task: -
"...The intensity of my grip was now giving rise to muscular cramp, a sure sign that it was time to return the snake without delay to a secure container. A stout bag had been suspended alongside the wall and I pressed the snake's body flat to the wall, gradually lowering it tail-first into the bag. The last step was to dash the head end downward into the bag after almost all the body was inside. This seemed simple and safe, but so stiff, resistant and muscular was the Taipan's body that my last vigorous thrusting of the head and neck carried it downward only six inches below the top of the bag."
During the 1950’s, David Fleay was one of Australia’s foremost naturalists, his experience with all manner of animals, including venomous snakes was legendary, and even today forty years later, there are few people who could hope to match his level of knowledge and competence. Commenting on the taipan’s demeanour, he says "...Dr Morgan, Roy Goodisson and I all agreed that we had just dealt with the most savage, tough and insistent snake in our joint experience - which was considerable." Such a comment coming from someone else would have seemed melodramatic and exaggerated, coming from David Fleay, it speaks volumes.
Meanwhile hardly a day went by in the Far North without further reports of taipan sightings appearing. Paranoia spread quickly, and almost every brownish coloured snake was quickly labelled "taipan". Most reports however related either to non-venomous water pythons (Liasis fuscus) and freshwater snakes (Katophis mairii), or to mildly venomous brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis), many of which were killed indiscriminately. On August 8, 1950 however, two council workers at Stratford discovered a pair of taipans while carrying out roadworks. Unable to contain both reptiles, they killed one, before successfully "coaxing" the second larger taipan into a sack. News that another live specimen had been secured spread quickly, and hundreds of local residents turned out to see the snake which was displayed publicly for a short time, before it too was sent south to Melbourne for research.
Unfortunately when the package arrived in Melbourne, it was taken to the Zoo and left locked securely away, unopened until a cage was made ready. Zoo officials, eager to capitalise on the intense public interest in these deadly snakes spent several days preparing a special exhibit, and even arranged for a large media contingent to be in attendance when the snake was finally liberated into its new home. Much to their embarrassment, it soon became obvious that the so-called "coaxing" by its captors had been a little more enthusiastic than necessary - when the box was finally opened the snake was dead (and in an advanced state of putrefaction).
Another pair of "taipans" were sighted a week or so later at Coen, several hundred kilometres north of Cairns. The snakes which were discovered by workers at the Coen aerodrome (near Budden’s old hunting ground) had been wrestling with one another, and were possibly two males engaged in ritual combat. After a ferocious battle with its captors, one of the snakes was bagged and also sent south only to be later identified as a large "mulga-brown variety of tree snake" by Mr.C.Brazenor the curator. Whether Brazenor was referring to a mulga snake (Pseudechis australis) or to a brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) remains uncertain.
Meanwhile one of the doctors who attended Budden, Dr Keith Benn had reported on the snake collectors’ death in The Medical Journal of Australia dated the 27 January, 1951. Benn's progressive account of Budden's envenomation is reproduced in part below: -
A FURTHER CASE OF SNAKE-BITE BY A TAIPAN ENDING FATALLY
By Keith M. Benn, M.B., B.S., Cairns, Queensland
KELLAWAY AND WILLIAMS (1929) published experimental evidence that the venom of the taipan Oxyuranus scutellatus was predominantly neurotoxic. This point is again referred to by Kellaway (1942), who made this further statement: "In animals poisoned by neurotoxic venoms 'starting movements' are observed in the late stages of poisoning. These convulsive movements are probably central and may be caused by low-grade asphyxia or directly by the action of the venom."
The similarity of the neurotoxin of the taipan to that of the tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) was suggested by Kellaway (1929) when he demonstrated cross-immunisation to taipan venom from tiger snake antivenene
Reference to previous cases of taipan bite, described in the literature, shows much unreliability, as in many of the cases neither was the snake clearly seen and identified nor were the clinical notes always complete enough to allow conclusions to be drawn as to the effect of the venom.
In one of the cases recorded by Flecker (1940) a permanent loss of smell and taste resulted - a feature not unusual with other neurotoxins. In the same account, two fatal cases are described (the snake not having been positively identified); one case is characterised by respiratory failure, the other by immediate onset of convulsions.
Flecker (1944) described a further two fatal cases, one of which was not identified as a taipan bite. Both cases, again, were characterised by convulsions.
Further reference to a case described by Reid and Flecker (1950), in which the snake was positively identified as a taipan, shows again all the clinical signs of a neurotoxin. In this case there was the picture of peripheral circulatory failure - a feature which, although common with the cytolytic toxins of black snake and copperhead snake venoms (Kellaway, 1942), is not expected with the taipan. Reference to the clinical details of this case shows that the patient lost a considerable quantity of blood with the scarification, his haemoglobin value being 40% seven days after the bite.
The present account deals with a case of snakebite; the snake was captured alive and was identified positively as a taipan.
The victim was K.B., aged twenty years, of slight physique, who described himself as "an amateur snake collector". It is stated by relatives that he had been bitten by several snakes previously...
...Upon arrival at Cairns Base Hospital at 11 a.m., the patient gave the general impression of bravado and excitement, showing greater interest in the welfare and comfort of the reptile than himself. When asked why he had not scarified the wound, he answered that in his opinion scarification "wasn't worth the trouble". He stated that he was not worried about himself, as he believed that snake victims died from fright more than from the effects of the poison.
Examination of the patient's left hand revealed two puncture wounds on the left thenar eminence, with a double row of puncture wounds running laterally. The arm had a double tourniquet applied above the elbow. No radial pulse was detected. General examination revealed no abnormality. The pulse rate was 96 per minute.
Scarification of the wound was not attempted, owing to the half-hour delay; 4500 units of tiger snake antivenine was given by the intravenous route. As the patient said that he was a hay fever subject, "Anthisan" (0.1 gramme) was given three times per day. The tourniquet was removed every ten minutes for a period of ten seconds until 12.15 p.m., when it was dispensed with completely.
At 3 p.m. the patient complained of blurred vision. He had vomited yellowish fluid three times and developed a severe headache straight after. Examination revealed a slight ptosis and weakness of both masseter muscles. His pulse rate was 120 per minute, the pulse being of good volume, and his skin temperature, taken by mouth, was 98.6° F. The skin felt clammy. The affected hand was now red and swollen.
A hypodermic injection of 5 minims of one in 1000 adrenaline solution and five minims of "Neosynephrin" was given. "Anacardone" (two millilitres) was also given by intramuscular injection. At 7 p.m. the patient had vomited yellowish fluid twice. Examination revealed extension of the paralytic process; slight internal strabismus was now present and ptosis was extreme.
He was unable to move his tongue appreciably; his mouth gaped and its floor sagged under the effects of gravity. As he was unable to swallow, it was necessary to aspirate saliva continuously. The patient was unable to phonate, and had to resort to pencil and paper. The sterno-mastoid muscles were weak upon both sides and some upper intercostal paralysis was noted. The pulse was full and the rate was 120 per minute. The body temperature was 97.2°F.
A further 3000 units of tiger snake antivenene was given intramuscularly. Mistura Potassii Citratis, half an ounce, was given four-hourly in addition to five milligrammes of picrotoxin intramuscularly. Examination of the patient at 8 p.m. revealed almost complete loss of intercostal breathing, complete facial paralysis and some weakening of upper and lower limb musculature with corresponding loss of tendon reflexes. Shortly before the patient was transferred to the respirator room a further 4500 units of tiger snake antivenene and one millilitre of "Anacardone" were given intramuscularly.
At 8.25 p.m. respiratory distress was apparent; yet when the patient was placed in the artificial respirator he fought strenuously against the artificial rhythm. This necessitated his removal, and dependence upon the administration of oxygen and posturing into Fowler's position. When this was done the patient showed little respiratory distress.
When he was examined at 9 p.m., the patient's condition was much the same. A hypodermic injection of atropine (1/100 grain) was successful in reducing salivary secretion.
During the night the patient slept normally and appeared to be capable of sufficient respiratory exchange. Slight cyanosis was reported at 9 a.m. the next day. The patient was restless and his temperature was 96.0° F. The oxygen flow was increased to four litres per minute with a good response. The administration of dextrose solution (5%) was started by the intravenous route at the rate of 80 drops per minute.
However, at 9.30 a.m. less than 500 millilitres had been given when the patient became restless and dragged the needle out. Immediately after this (10.50 a.m.) he had a rigor, and his pulse was rapid and only just perceptible.
One millilitre of pitressin and five milligrammes of "Neosynephrin" were given immediately. Some improvement was noted by 11.25 a.m.; ventilation was deeper, and the patient was conscious. The radial pulse was slower and fuller. At 12.30 p.m. the patient became restless, respiratory movements became shallow and moderate cyanosis developed. The oxygen administration from a standard "B.L.M." mask was increased, and two millilitres of "Anacardone" were given intramuscularly. However, cyanosis became intense and respiratory movements disappeared; but the pulse rate did not increase and the pulse was full.
Manual artifical respiration was instituted preparatory to insertion of the patient into the respirator. No ventilation occurred when he was put into the respirator. As it was thought that a mucous clot might have blocked the airway, the patient was then subjected to direct laryngoscopy. The chords were seen to be clear and only very little mucus was present. A McGill's tube was inserted to ensure an airway. Artifical respiration had continued in the meantime.
At 1.20 p.m. one millilitre of "Anacardone" was given intramuscularly. The patient remained cyanotic and cold, although respiratory exchange was adequate.
At 1.30 the pulse failed and no signs of life were detected.
At the post-mortem examination it was noted that around the two puncture wounds was a quarter-inch area of dry, black tissue resembling dry gangrene.
A case of bite from Oxyuranus scutellatus ending fatally is described.
The patient probably received a small dose of venom, as is suggested by the late onset of symptoms and the absence of convulsions.
One was unable to detect any amelioration of symptoms with the use of 12,000 units of tiger snake antivenene. This is surprising in view of the findings of Kellaway (1929) and of Flecker and Reid (1949). This case illustrates the fact that preconceived ideas on the part of the patient in respect to first aid may seriously affect his progress.
Indicative of the effect of a neurotoxin, the symptoms in this case are predominantly those of slowly developing flaccid paralysis and bulbar palsy.
The use of drugs designed to stimulate the respiratory centre had no particular effect on the paralysis of this patient. This is significant, perhaps, in face of Kellaway's statement in respect to the neurotoxins of Australian snakes. Kellaway states that apart from the central effects, "...the venoms have a curari-like action on motor endings, and a further direct action upon muscle itself. To this curari-like action the phrenic end plates in the diaphragm are particularly sensitive; and partial curarization of the diaphragm plays an important part in the failure of respiration which is the commonest cause of death after the bites of these snakes."
Preserved body of the taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) which bit and killed Kevin Budden in July, 1950. (Photo Source: National Museum of Victoria)
Given that this account is accurate, it represents one of the most classic examples of the effects of taipan venom on the human victim. Conflicting accounts of Budden's time of death have emerged. While Dr.Benn's account records death at 1.30pm on 28 July, 1950, truck driver Jim Harris, who spent hours with Budden as he lay dying is adamant that death occurred some 15 hours after the bite, at 1.30am, since he recalls having received news of Kevin's death at 9.00am on 28 July, 1950 when he returned to the hospital to be by the young man's side.
Clinically the delay in the initial onset of neurotoxic paralysis can possibly be interpreted as illustrating the latency stage preceding presynaptic neuromuscular blockade that we now know to be a classic feature of taipan envenomations. Budden’s application of a tourniquet may have delayed the uptake of venom to some degree, but as Benn’s account shows the subsequent progression of paralysis leading to systematic failure of vital function clearly demonstrates the lethal efficiency of the venom.
While there are no published accounts of blood and urine analysis in this case, it could reasonably be expected that such records would show textbook case of disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, and perhaps even evidence of myolysis. Benn reports that administration of tiger snake (Notechis spp.) antivenom successfully reversed a coagulation defect, yet as other medicos also discovered, this potent antivenom offered no defence against the lethal neurotoxins in taipan venom.
Kevin Budden was typical of many of Australia's early snakemen. As truck driver Jim Harris said, "He was a game little bloke and as cool as they come," - and that is probably the most fitting epitaph that anyone could bestow on him. His foolhardy disregard for himself following the bite, despite the magnitude of the predicament he was in, seems hard to appreciate, but then perhaps Kevin simply accepted the inevitable, and chose to maintain his dignity and good nature to the end. His sister Dorothy Dale certainly believes that this was the case, just as she maintains that Kevin always knew of the risk he was taking, but believed that the capture of a live taipan for research was a goal worthy of it. Few if any of us will ever find ourselves in the same situation, so it seems unreasonable for us to criticise too harshly.
Portrayed widely in the press at the time, as a foolish young adventurer who came to grief through his own folly (an opinion echoed by Jim Harris), this assessment belies the fact that Kevin was an able young herpetologist who along with his colleagues at the time, identified a problem - the lack of a specific taipan antivenom - and then methodically set out to help solve it. Kevin Budden gave his life to this cause, and infact it was only in the aftermath of his death, and through access to venom obtained by milking the snake which took his life, that research into the properties of taipan venom were finally stimulated in earnest, and eventually an antivenom made available.
Stimulated into action by the events in Cairns, other herpetologists took up the challenge to locate live taipans for scientific study. Edward Ramsamy, a railway fettler from Mackay, 700 kilometres south of Cairns had been given a live taipan in late 1951, and in January 1952 a quantity of venom was sent to Commonwealth Serum Laboratory staff by Mr J.H. Williams on behalf of Ramsamy, who had obtained it during a milking of the snake on 22 December, 1952. Ramsamy, who during the 1940’s had worked the show circuits of New South Wales and Queensland with a travelling sideshow that included boxing troupes, fortune tellers and a snakepit, later adopted the name "Ram Chandra", and developed a cult following in rural Queensland as "the taipan man". In April 1955 he became a regular supplier of taipan venoms to CSL, a dedication that was maintained for nearly 3 decades.
Later in 1952, Eric Worrell, a young naturalist/photo-journalist from Woy Woy in New South Wales, organised an expedition to travel north to Cairns in search of taipans, and was joined on the way by Wal Lorking and John Dwyer, two Sydney-based "herps" keen to collect a taipan for Taronga Park Zoo. This became the first of many carefully planned collecting expeditions that Worrell and colleagues undertook on behalf of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, and their successes produced a steady supply of venom with which CSL scientists were able to successfully immunise several horses.
Milking a taipan for antivenom production
Extracting venom from live snakes is a vital first step in the production of commercial antivenoms for the treatment of bites by these animals. The liquid venom is lyophilised (freeze-dried), and forwarded to laboratories where it is reconstituted and used to immunise suitable host animals (such as horses or sheep). When immunity levels are high enough, small volumes of blood are drawn from the hosts, and the antisera it contains is further purified and prepared into antivenoms.
These efforts, stimulated largely by Kevin Budden’s death in 1950, culminated in mid-1955 with news that an experimental antivenom would be available before year’s end. Before the year ended, the antivenom would save the life of 11 year old Bruce Stringer, a Cairns schoolboy.
For forty years, Kevin’s grave in the back section of the Cairns Cemetery has been tended with love and dedication by his friends, and by his sister, Dorothy who still travels to Cairns every year or so in July to honour her brother’s passing. In 1992 the Mayor of Cairns, Ald. Kevin Byrne attended a short memorial service and presented a small plaque of appreciation from the people of the city to Dorothy in honour of her brother.
Quite frequently, new generations of reptile enthusiasts scoff at, and ridicule, the efforts of their predecessors - people like Eric Worrell, John McLoughlin, Charles Tanner, Ken Slater, Ram Chandra, Bob Humphries, Berkeley Cook, and of course Kevin Budden. What they forget is that were it not for these and other people having genuinely risked life and limb to secure venom for research, then they too would probably be lying in cold, dark earth instead of carrying their histories of snakebite injuries proudly about like medieval badges of courage.
"Lighter is he than chocolate, and duskier than gold, but his strike is the strike of lightning that flicks when the thunder rolls."
"Lately the south has found him and poured his story forth, but he doesn't know he's famous - the brown death of the north."
"Brave was the youth from Sydney, and skilled in the snake's attack, came to the taipan's country to carry a taipan back."
"But he lived and died in the northland, reckless and over brave, the snake he caught went southward, while he rests in a brave man's grave..."
"Vale Kevin Clifford Budden. He gave his life for the good of others - Lest we forget."
Lex McLennan, 1950.
This article could not have been written without the kindness and generosity of Neville Goddard from Rockhampton who gave me original photographs, handwritten notes and other items detailing Kevin's tragic death and earlier adventures. Kevin's sister, Dorothy Dale was also kind enough to spend many hours telling me her brothers story, and recounting her experience following his death. For over 50 years she has made pilgrimages to Cairns to lay flowers on her brothers grave ... a truly remarkable woman whose love for he elder brother shows through in every word she speaks.
David Williams (January 2004)
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