Dying for Antivenom – The Kevin Budden Story

Born in Australia in 1930, Kevin Budden worked as a retail assistant in the suburbs of Sydney, but his real passion was for herpetology. Much of his free time was spent hunting, capturing and studying Australia’s venomous snakes. In a 1949 article published in Adelaide, Budden revealed he had captured 59 snakes the previous year, being bitten five times. He was killed at the age of 20 by a taipan, the family of fast-moving snakes with the most powerful venom on earth. However, his successful capture of the snake that killed him eventually resulted in the development of an effective antivenom that has saved many lives since.

Kevin Budden (right), pictured with fellow herpetologists Roy Mackay and Neville Goddard in 1949. Image: Neville Goddard

Budden traveled to Queensland in March 1950 with two other snake hunters in an attempt to catch a taipan, a goal that had eluded him during previous trips to Northern Territory and the Cape York Peninsula. A little understood species, at the time there was no viable antivenom for their potent toxin. Successfully locating a specimen in scrubland near Cairns, Budden captured the snake, now believed to be a coastal taipan, before flagging down a passing truck driver who drove him to the home of a local snake specialist to confirm his identification.

Unfortunately, while attempting to transfer the snake to a holding bag, Budden lost his grip and was bitten on the left thumb. Despite medical staff’s initial hopes that the young, healthy herpetologist would recover, he quickly declined and died the following morning. Before passing, he insisted that the snake be transferred, alive, to Melbourne for further study.

Budden photographed en-route to North Queensland. Image: Neville Goddard

On arrival in Melbourne, renowned Australian biologist David Fleay successfully milked the taipan for venom, gathering six samples in total. It was then transferred to the Melbourne Zoo, but died just weeks after arrival. Its body was preserved and remains on display at the National Museum of Victoria. Using the samples provided by the snake, an effective antivenom had been developed by 1955, being used for the first time to save the life of a snake bite victim within a year.

The taipan that was captured by Budden. Image: Museums Victoria

In 2014, some of the original venom samples were discovered amongst a collection at the University of Melbourne. Over sixty years later, the samples were found to have retained their lethal toxicity, and continued to provide ongoing scientific value.

Only one person is recorded to have survived a taipan bite without antivenom, an Aboriginal Australian named George Rosendale who was bitten in 1949. On extracting samples of his blood during treatment, nurses found that it had turned completely black.

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