A Venomous Life: The Autobiography of Straun Sutherland


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Science, Writing

One of the more entertaining segments in Douglas Adams’ extremely entertaining book Last Chance to See concerns Straun Sutherland, an Australian doctor who counselled Adams on the dangers associated with venomous wildlife in the region Adams was visiting. While definitely entertaining overall, Sutherland’s autobiography could have used more aggressive editing, particularly when it comes to deciding which accounts will be of interest to readers.

In particular, Sutherland devotes far, far too much time to giving his account of various bureaucratic disagreements at the laboratories where he mostly worked. About half the book consists of this. It may have been satisfying for him to lay out his version of events and settle some scores, but aside from the people directly involved in the incidents described, I doubt anyone in the world cared. If I ever write an autobiography, please insist on me removing all such material.

While he speaks at enormous length about bureaucratic squabbles, Sutherland generally only alludes to the more important personal aspects of his life. Dissolving marriages get brushed upon for one sentence, before he moves back to discussing bureaucratic politics at length. Similarly, his references toward the end of the book to his own neurological condition are somewhat unclear.

One frustrating thing about this book is Sutherland’s sometimes-playful-sometimes-maddening fondness for making improbable but possible claims. It may be harmless enough to claim that as a child he made one cinderblock bomb powerful enough to send another cinderblock bomb high enough to be “a little black dot high in the sky” (I suspect any explosion that powerful would have seriously injured or killed the child who initiated it). Similarly, to tell a story about a fellow sailor buying a watch that turned out to be powered by a cockroach attached to the machinery (surely more difficult and costly for a watch counterfeiter than just using a spring or motor). When he talks nonchalantly about a man about an aircraft carrier getting sucked into a jet engine, it isn’t clear if he is giving an honest account in a spectacularly understated way or whether he is telling a very dark sort of joke. In many parts of the book, it is hard to assess the reliability of the narrator, even about serious matters.

That story does connect to one of the more interesting things about the book – the accounts of deaths. It’s not something that happens to anywhere near the same extent in your ordinary autobiography. Characters are introduced and promptly die. Of course, doctors witness the deaths of many more people than members of the population at large. Venom doctors particularly, I expect. The descriptions of death did give me a better sense of what a life as a doctor might be like, and what kind of temperament is suited to it. While the subject matter is often morbid, Sutherland maintains a jovial tone. That is also what made the account of him so entertaining in Adams’ book.

One last quibble is that some of the science and medicine in the book could stand to be a bit more clearly and elaborately explained. Sometimes specialist terms are used as though the reader should already be familiar – which is a bit of a stretch, when the subject matter is venom chemistry or obscure aspects of human or animal anatomy.

The things I enjoyed most about the book are Sutherland’s account of his time in the navy, as well as his descriptions of menial jobs he took while in medical school. There are also some entertaining and enlightening accounts of the practice of medicine in various contexts, from a navy ship to a small community to a research laboratory. Sutherland is quite a character and an entertaining writer. It would have been nice if he had been a touch clearer about when he was being completely serious, and less focused on writing an account of the bureaucratic structure and history of the labs where he worked.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 18, 2015 at 2:35 pm

Drabeck wasn’t surprised by these mutations, but she was surprised when she compared the honey badger’s tweaks to those found in other mammals. These tweaks had evolved independently in at least four species: honey badgers, mongooses, hedgehogs, and pigs. The hedgehog—which loves to eat venomous snakes—wasn’t a surprise. But the pig? “We were pretty excited by that,” says Drabeck. She hadn’t expected pigs to have molecular defenses against venom; biologists knew wild pigs could survive snakebites but assumed that was because their thick skin and fat acts like armor against fangs. But wild pigs, like honey badgers, have long shared the same parts of the world as venomous snakes—giving them an incentive to evolve venom resistance. And that in turn has given the snakes an incentive to evolve more toxic venom.


. October 22, 2017 at 11:16 pm

Many antidotes to snake venom do not work as well as they might

Venom varies from place to place. Antivenoms must take account of this

To find out, he obtained venom from saw-scaled vipers in Ghana, India, Kenya, two regions of Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He and his colleagues measured the rate at which venom from each of these caused human blood to clot. They then re-ran the experiment in the presence of each of four different commercial antivenoms, to see if these slowed the process down. Two of the antivenoms in question, EchiTab-Plus-ICP and SAIMR Echis, were made using venom from African snakes. The other two, Sii Polyvalent Anti-snake Venom Serum and Snake Venom Antiserum I.P., were from Indian snake venoms.

The best of the antivenoms, EchiTab-Plus-ICP, did well against toxins used by the vipers of Ghana, Nigeria, one of the Malian regions and Senegal. But it did little against all other saw-scaled vipers, despite being listed as a treatment in Kenya and in the region of Mali for which the experiment suggested it did not work. SAIMR Echis was similar. It performed well against snakes from Saudi Arabia, Kenya and one region of Mali, moderately against snakes from Ghana, Nigeria and the other part of Mali, and poorly elsewhere. This antivenom is listed as effective against a species called Echis carinatus (pictured overleaf). But Dr Fry’s results suggest that protection does not extend to populations of this species living in India.

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