Online Exhibition

Venom: Fear, Fascination and Discovery

“…we cannot feel sure that the apes do not learn from their own experience or from that of their parents what fruits to select. It is, however, certain, as we shall presently see, that apes have an instinctive dread of serpents…”

- Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1871, p. 61

This exhibition tells of the fascination with the power of venom and the quest for a universal antidote against this most feared of poisons. Over thousands of years Australian Aboriginal people incorporated ways of understanding and dealing with these venomous creatures in their cultural and healing practices. Thereafter, from colonial times to the present day the search for an antidote has continued. Indeed, from the first Professor of Medicine, George Britton Halford, the University of Melbourne has been part of the global debate on the nature of venom. Contributions were made through collaboration between major research and cultural institutions: Melbourne Zoo, Museum Victoria, Healesville Sanctuary, the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (now bioCSL). Struan Sutherland founded the Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU), in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Melbourne, upon the privatisation of CSL Ltd, in 1994.

Watch introductory video

  • Aboriginal Australia

    Over thousands of years Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have incorporated ways of understanding and dealing with these venomous creatures in their cultural and healing practices. Some of that understanding is presented here.

  • Fear

    Venomous creatures have evoked fear and awe through the ages. This is reflected in responses in various belief systems across multiple cultures, places and times.

  • Fascination

    The serpent was used to represent the source of both knowledge, as well as evil, in the Hebrew and Christian bibles. Further, in the Abrahamic traditions, the serpent also symbolises sexual desire. This seductive power of the serpent, its role in eternal life, and as an agent of evil, endures as evident from Medieval Christian Art to present day in secular, as well as religious, stories and imagery.

  • Discovery

    From the first western medical texts, in the form of the Egyptian papyri, through to the ancient Greece and Roman pharmacopoeia, mention was always made of the effects of venom and a multiplicity of treatments proffered. As the profession of Medicine moved into a difficult adolescence, its proximity to the evolving practice of natural history during the Enlightenment began a new chapter in The Story of Venom.

  • People

    Many scientific and medical characters contributed to the contemporary understanding and treatments for venomous injury. This history also reminds us that, beyond the Academy, our understanding of venom, derives, in part, from a lifetime of contribution from many amateur and professional men and women who collected and milked these potentially deadly creatures.