The Snakeman of Humpty Doo
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Graeme Gow is a walking miracle: the Australian snake expert of Humpty Doo has survived 142 bites from the most venomous vipers in the world. He even received a triple bite from an inland taipan, whose bite is enough to kill 127 people weighing 80 kilos each – Graeme lived.
Doctors jostled to collect samples of his blood to understand this medical enigma. Gow runs a reptile farm called Reptile World and Research Centre at Humpty Doo, 45 kilometres south of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territories.
Just as Australia seems to be the snake pit of the world (Australia has seventeen of the world’s top twenty venomous land snakes), the Northern Territories are the snake pit of Australia – the place is rife with the creatures.
And with 500 snakes on the farm, all chosen specifically because they are the most dangerous and venomous in the world, Gow’s reptile farm is truly the epicentre of snakedom.
The reason why Gow’s blood is so sought-after is because he is a walking miracle of modern medicine: the man has been bitten 142 times, and lived. And not just 142 bites from your garden-variety earthworm; they came from the world’s most venomous serpents – experts in the US say that Gow’s 142 bites are equal to 2,000 bites from the deadliest American snakes.
Gow’s pièce de résistance – the crunch, as it were – is the triple bite he received from an inland taipan, which usually sinks enough venom into its victim in one bite to kill 127 people weighing 80 kg each. Gow just took it in stride.
With typical Aussie understatement, Gow describes his experience: “Some snake bites are no worse than a hangover. Others take months, even years, to get over. This time I spent six days in intensive care and felt fine.”
The taipan venom targets the central nervous system, leading to paralysis and prevents the blood from clotting. Once paralysis sets in, antivenin is pointless – the bite victim will die. For six hours nothing happened – Gow was rushed to Darwin hospital in that time and, just as he felt the first effects of paralysis, the antivenin was administered. The medical staff was pessimistic about his chances.
But to their amazement, Gow responded. Gow: “The thing that surprised them was that my blood did clot and I only needed such a small amount of antivenin. Because it was a triple bite, they were expecting to have to use a lot of antivenins.” In fact, six days later he was discharged, feeling fine. Better yet, Gow was back in intensive care only six weeks later to be treated for a death adder bite, much to the consternation of the medical staff.
The news quickly spread. Dr Bart Currie, from Royal Darwin hospital, took samples of Gow’s blood and sent them to London and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories for testing. A British doctor, Professor David Wal, then flew all the way to Darwin for the honour of collecting a test tube of Gow’s blood; and Graeme Gow has been discussed at medical conferences all over the world.
“They want to know why my blood is clotting when others’ won’t. I’m science’s best guinea pig. I’m a new source of data,” says Gow. His response to the death adder’s bite, coming so soon after the taipan’s triple bite, lifted eyebrows even higher in the medical profession: even though Gow refused antivenin, fearing the chance of developing resistance to the drug, after six hours his venom levels were much lower, and by twenty-eight hours, his body displayed no signs of ever having been bitten. Apart from two little puncture marks.
Some would say that being bitten once by a deadly viper was careless; 142 times a sign of suicidal tendencies. But it comes with the territory. Graeme Gow has spent his whole life around snakes and his professionalism and expertise, in fact, make him a much-respected man in his circles. His first ever bite came from a tiger snake in 1965 – he almost seems to look back on this initiation with some fondness.
But, in his fifties, even Gow realises he can’t play with venom for much longer. “As you get older, the body doesn’t have the ability to cope with the shock. I’m trying to put the brakes on, without too much success I might add.” He smiles wryly.
He just loves snakes; he can’t help it. He operates Reptile World to improve the snake’s reputation; a much-maligned animal and unfairly so. The data he collects on snakes and their behaviour has helped the public understand these creatures; rather than demonise them – and has helped researchers understand their findings. His expertise is also regularly called upon by movie makers who want his help in snake scenes – the 1980s Aussie classic, Crocodile Dundee, was a good example.
Like so many zoologists, Gow tends to prefer animals to humans: “People ask me what is the worst bite I’ve suffered. I tell that none of them were from snakes, but from fellow human beings.”
As for fear, the only creature Gow views with apprehension is not on land at all, but in the sea: “Sharks,” he says, “they are my only fear in the animal kingdom. At the beach I sit with the kids and build sand castles.”