In Which We Learn That It Is Unwise to Drink and Handle Snakes

Do not be fooled by this Vietnamese cobra wine--snakes and alcohol do not mix.

One of the first things you learn as a science writer is that even the driest-seeming research papers can hide incredible stories. Sometimes, you just have to look hard. Other times, the story will reach right out of the pages of the journal and grab you by the neck. I recently discovered a research article that did just that. The paper, published in the journal Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, is called “Joseph Clover and the cobra: a tale of snake envenomation and attempted resuscitation with bellows in London, 1852.” Already my interest was piqued. Then I read the abstract:

The Industrial Revolution saw the creation of many new jobs, but probably none more curious than that of zookeeper. The London Zoological Gardens, established for members in 1828, was opened to the general public in 1847. In 1852 the “Head Keeper in the Serpent Room,” Edward Horatio Girling, spent a night farewelling a friend departing for Australia. He arrived at work in an inebriated state and was bitten on the face by a cobra that he was handling in a less than sensible manner…

If ever there was an abstract that made me want to dig out the full paper, this was it. And so I did, discovering many more details about the “less than sensible manner” in which Girling handled the cobra. According to the paper (full text available here):

On the night of 19 October 1852, Girling was out drinking with a friend who was moving to Australia. Together with Edward Stewart, a temporary employee of the zoo, they stayed up all night, having three pints of beer at the friend’s house before moving to a pub in Shoe Lane where they drank quarters of gin until eight in the morning. From there it was straight to work where Edward Stewart, presumably still inebriated from the night before, was occupied in the relative safety of the hummingbird enclosure. But, once he had gathered up a basket of sparrows for the snake house, he went there to find Girling in “an excited state.” Girling, emboldened by gin, had walked past the railing in the reptile house and proceeded to lift out a Morocco Snake from its glass-fronted cage. Despite the protests of his friend, he draped this snake around the unfortunate Stewart, crying “I am inspired!” His friend bent down, protesting that the snake would bite him at any moment. Girling relented and put the snake back where it belonged. Stewart went about his work only to hear his friend cry “Now for the cobra”–a statement which must have chilled him into instant sobriety. Unable to stop his friend, he watched horrified as Girling took hold of the snake and put it under his waistcoat. The snake coiled around Girling’s waist, came out the front and, as Girling took hold of its body, struck him in the middle of his face. Stewart fled in search of help while Girling managed to return the cobra to the safety of its cage and wash his bleeding face before being bundled into a cab and taken to University College Hospital.

Less than an hour after arriving at the hospital, he was dead. The doctors’ work, however, was not over. After making careful notes about Girling’s body, the doctors moved on to a study of his blood, hoping that they might uncover some new facts about the cobra’s venom. One test involved extracting blood from Girling’s corpse and injecting it into a healthy mouse. The rodent, at least, must have been relieved that nothing of note resulted.

For its part, the cobra, too, seemed unaffected by the entire affair.

On 22 October [Girling’s] body was on view again, this time before the jury and the wife of the deceased at the inquest. Thomas Wakley, editor of the Lancet, was the coroner presiding over the proceedings and, after viewing the body, the entire court departed for Regent’s Park to view the scene of the accident. The cobra, displayed in its glass case, took refuge “from the gaze of the respectable jury in a small water tank with which the compartment is provided.”

All this, dear readers, is a very long-winded way of making the following public service announcement: Do not drink and handle snakes.

ResearchBlogging.orgReference: Ball C (2010). Joseph Clover and the cobra: a tale of snake envenomation and attempted resuscitation with bellows in London, 1852. Anaesthesia and intensive care, 38 Suppl 1, 5-9 PMID: 20715640

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Khương Việt Hà

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20 Responses to In Which We Learn That It Is Unwise to Drink and Handle Snakes

  1. Ed Yong says:

    “Despite the protests of his friend, he draped this snake around the unfortunate Stewart, crying ‘I am inspired!'”

    This sentence in particular cracked me up.

  2. darwinsdog says:

    Virtually every verified fatality from Gila monster bite has been an inebriate. It was the custom in 19th century saloons in the American west to keep a Gila monster on display. Drunks would mess with them and get bitten. Probably it was the combination of envenomation & intoxication that killed.

  3. Emily Anthes says:

    Wow, I had no idea–that’s a great bit of trivia.

  4. John Wilkins says:

    Friends don’t let friends snakehandle drunk.

  5. Guernican says:

    At the risk of extreme pedantry, might I suggest that this is not “where we learn that it is unwise to drink and handle snakes”. Deep down, I suspect we already knew that. But it’s always nice to have one’s suspicions confirmed.

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  7. James says:

    a somewhat similar, albeit less-alcohol-inspired, bit of research into the venom of the black widow spider was done in the 1930s by a Univ. of Alabama researcher who allowed himself to be bitten and then recorded his observations. Chief among them: it is a bad idea to voluntarily get bitten by a black widow.

    A summary of his experience can be found here:

  8. It is a very good analogy. I like your interpretation of the “snakes” It also fits better with the Adam and Eve story.Good luck in your work. God Bless and be with you..

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  10. I enjoyed your post. It was passed on to me from my husband who often handles snakes (occasionally venomous ones) in his work. I hope he takes your message to heart!

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  12. slg says:

    A factoid we learned at the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson a couple of years ago: around 25% of rattlesnake bites are honestly accidents from not seeing it (stepping on it, reaching down for the faucet, etc., etc.)

    The other 75% result from people playing with the snake. Picking it up, slinging it around, etc. A disproportionate percentage of those 75% (but I don’t remember numbers) are young males.

    And I would suspect a disproportionate percentage of them are fueled by chemical courage of some sort.

    Another factoid from the same presentation. Few people die of rattlesnake bites these days. However, not only are they extremely painful, but the full regimen of treatment costs something like $100K. Explain that to your insurance…

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  15. Dan Conway says:

    Last words most often heard just prior to a snakebite:

    “Honey, hold my beer and watch this…”

  16. gregdowney says:

    Dan, your comment reminds me of the joke about Canadians:
    Most common words spoken by Canadians in majority of provinces immediately before auto accident: ‘Oh, @#$%!’
    Most common words spoken by Albertans immediately before auto accident: ‘Hold my beer and watch this…’
    I never understood why Albertans were singled out and don’t yet know about Australian stereotypes to translate the joke effectively, so it’s currently on the shelf, but your comment makes me think that maybe the translation would work better by changing the set-up to snake-bite…

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