20 FEBRUARY 1886, Page 20


MR. VINCENT'S book is a veritable mzdtum in parvo. In less than two hundred pages, he has condensed information which it must have taken him years to accumulate and much labour to acquire. Snakes have always been interesting to mankind ; our ancestors worshipped them ; they play an important part in all heathen mythologies and the suite of primitive peoples; and millions of men still regard them as being endowed with supernatural powers, and hold them in religious dread. But irreverent Europeans, thirsting for knowledge, and taking nothing on trust, dissect snakes, analyse their venom, and try to find antidotes for their bites. Mr. Vincent Richards, who was an active member of the Indian Snake-Poison Commission, has naturally more to tell us about Indian snakes than any other ; yet he by no means limits his observations to India, while as touching their poisons, he gives us the latest informa- tion and the result of the most recent investigations. This, indeed, as he mentions in his preface, is the main object of the work,—" To assist future investigators in discovering what has been already done ; to throw light upon the difficult subject of which it treats, so that their time may not be wasted in useless investigations ; and to prevent an unnecessary and reckless sacrifice of animal life." A most commendable object, for though there is a difference of opinion as to whether it is right to experiment on the lower animals in the interest of science, there can be none as to the wrong of torturing dumb creatures, either out of mere curiosity or to ascertain what is already known.

Unlearning is even a more salutary process than learning ; better ignorance than illusion ; and there is no animal about which more lying legends have been told, or as to whose habits and peculiarities there is greater misconception, than the snake. The legends Mr. Richards passes by. They do not come within the scope of his inquiries ; but for misconceptions he has no mercy, nor does he hesitate to expose fallacies which, being based on recent observation, are supposed to enjoy in some measure the sanction of science. The deadly cobra is not, after all, the most virulently venomous of Indian snakes; the hydrophidm (sea-snakes) are even more to be dreaded, their poison, quantity for quantity, being even more fatal than that of the better known land-snakes. The idea that the hakis, which has a caudal appendage in the form of a horny spine, can kill with its tail, is a pure illusion ; so also is the notion that a rattlesnake rattles. The noise it makes is like the shaking of a dry bean-pod. Serpents are generally credited with the power of fascinating their victims, a theory which has suggested some very thrilling stories. But this appears to be also a superstition. Mice, birds, dogs, guinea-pigs, and other "small deer," introduced into a rattlesnake's cage, show little fear even at first, and afterwards none whatever. Smaller birds, after fluttering about until they are tired, end by becoming amusingly familiar with the snakes, and are seldom molested even when caged with six or eight large crotali. Mr. Richards lately pat two rats into a cage containing forty cobras, all possessing more or leas venom. At the outset the rats' appetites were considerably affected, and they were evidently much alarmed by the novelty of their position. In a short time, however, the rats recovered their usual spirits," and caused considerable commotion amongst the cobras by running all over their heads and bodies. The snakes resented this familiarity in their own peculiar and stupid fashion, by darting at each other and at imaginary foes. Occasionally, however, one of the intruders would receive attention, but easily avoided the attack. The rats lived and partook of food in the cage for ten or twelve days, when, one after another, they were found dead, —victims, no doubt, of misplaced confidence." It seems to • The La ndnuo ks of Snake.Poieen Literature. Being a Review of the more Important Researches into the Nature of Snake-Poison. By Vincent Richards. F. n.C.S. Edin., tic. Calcutta : D. M. Trail.

be still somewhat of a moot point whether snakes are proof against their own poison. They die so quickly in captivity, that even when death follows a bite, it by no means follows that the bite is the cause. Mr. Richards kept sixty to seventy cobras in a pit together, and on the slightest provocation "they began to fight together in a most savage and curious fashion : "—

" On being provoked, several commenced to hiss fiercely, and some would raise themselves up, expand their hoods, and begin a fierce attack in all directions ; and after making several ineffectual darts— for they are by no means so skilful at taking aim as is generally believed—two would catch each other by the mouth, rapidly entwine thenwe'ves, as it were, and after wriggling and struggling about in this state for some tim, relax their hold. Then one would be seen gliding away, vanquished, to the corner of the cage, while the triumphant one, raised to its full balancing height, hissed out its challenge for a renewal of the combat. In what consisted of getting the worst of it I could never discover, as neither of the combatants ever seemed the worse for the fight ; nor can I understand why one snake dreads another if no danger is involved."

Dr. Weir Mitchell, a great authority, is convinced that a crota- his can be killed with its own poison when hypodermically in- jected; and after numerous experiments, Mr. Richards has arrived at the conclusion that one species of snake is capable of killing another. He does not say, however, that snakes of the same species can kill each other. But the most interesting and important branch of the subject is the nature of their venom,

its effect on the human species, and the possibility of finding an antidote for their bites. In every country where snakes abound, there is an abundance of supposed remedies and specifics, and hardly a year passes that we do not hear of the discovery of some new and infallible antidote. When fairly tested, however, they always prove to be as illusory as any of their predecessors. It is generally a case of post hoc ergo propter .hoc. Because a man recovers after being bitten by a snake, and dosed with opium, mercury, ammonia, or what not, we must not jump to the conclusion that the treatment has effected a cure. A snake may bite without poisoning, strike without hurting. Biting, though in appearance simple enough, consists really of a series of complex movements, following rapidly one upon another in ordered sequence, for the accom- plishment of a certain end. Should any of these movements be inadequately performed, the victim may not be properly poisoned. First of all, the serpent must be in a position to ensure the penetration of the fang into the opposing flesh. And then (quoting from Dr. Weir Mitchell) :—

"As the unsheathed tooth penetrates the flesh of the victim, a series of movements occur, which must be contemporaneous, or nearly so. The body of the snake, still resting in coil, makes, as it were, an anchor, while the muscles of the neck contracting, draw upon the head so violently, that when a small animal is the prey, it is often dragged back by the effort here described. If now the head and fang remain passive, the pull upon the head would withdraw the fang too soon ; but at this moment the head is probably stayed in is position by the muscles below or in front of the spine; while the ptergoideus externus and spheno-palatine, acting upon the fang through their respective insertions into the posterior apophysis of the submaxillary bone, and the inside of the palate bone, draw its point violently backward, so as to drive it more deeply into the flesh. At this instant occur a third series of motions, which result in the farther deepening of the wound, and in the injection of the poison."

The final act is much facilitated when the lower jaw can be closed on the bitten part or member. "Where the surface is flat and large, this action will have but slight influence. Where the jaw shuts on a small limb or member, the consequent effects will be far more likely to prove serious, since the power thus to shut the mouth materially aids the purpose of the blow." It will thus be seen that a person may easily be bitten without taking much hurt, since a stroke, unless it penetrate the aureolar tissue, is seldom fatal. But recovery under such circumstances would almost certainly be ascribed to any remedies which might be administered, many of which, as Mr. Richards points out, are rather worse than useless. Ammonia, alcohol, making the patient move about, are worse than useless ; they increase the activity of the circulation, thereby promoting the absorption of the poison. On the assumption that cobra venom affects principally the heart and the arterial system, Dr. Butter, of Calcutta, recommends the administration of opium, brandy, and sulphuric ether. But according to our author, this theory is altogether untenable, the main action of the venom being upon the respiratory centres. It is, moreover, always possible that a patient who believes he has been bitten by a cobra, may have been bitten by some less deadly snake. For instance, Dr. Butter gives an account of a cure, by his treatment, of a soldier of thePoruckhpore Light Infantry, who had been bitten by a snake sup posed, from its size, to be a cobra de capello. His symptoms

are minutely described ; but Mr. Richards wickedly suggests that they appear to have been much more the effects of the treatment, than the result of the bite. In other words, Soobhan Khan got better not because of the treatment, but in spite of it. In truth, an effectual remedy for virulent snake-poison has still to be found. The nearest approach to a remedy is permanganate of potash, with which Dr. de Lacerda, of Rio de Janeiro, claims to have neutralised the poison of the bothrops,whose bite, however, is not nearly so venomous as that of the cobra, nor, as we presume, of the deadly Smith American nahuyaca. After nearly one hundred experiments with permanganate of potash, Mr. Richards arrives at the conclusion that up to the present time it has never been experimentally shown that any agent has either the power to neutralise cobra-poison when lying in the tissues, or to prevent death when four minutes have elapsed from the time of injection of the poison to that of treatment. Actually mixed with the poison, permanganate of potash appears to act as a neutralising agent ; but as hypodermic injection within four minutes of the infliction of a bite is, save experimentally, materially impossible, the remedy is practically useless. Investigations are, however, • still in progress ; and it is quite possible that we may be on the eve of important discoveries. The mystery that has hitherto enshrouded the chemical nature of cobra-venom has yielded, in part at least, to the recent researches of Dr. R. Morris Wolfenden, of University College. He has demonstrated beyond doubt, thinks Mr. Richards, the proteid character of the venom. Dr. Wolfenden is of opinion that it contains three toxic elements—globulin, serum albumen, and acid albumen— and that the antidote must be looked for among compounds which will oxidise the venom proteids alone. Yet this does not tell us where or what is the poison. Globulins and proteids are harmless. In what respect do the venom-globulins and venom- proteids differ from them ; whence come their lethal properties ? As Mr. Richards says, there must be a plies to the proteids,— what is its nature ? In other words, what is the poison ? Until this question be fully answered, we must admit that although we are somewhat less ignorant about snakes than we were, our knowledge of them is still far from complete.