Eric Worrell was the founder of the Australian Reptile Park near Gosford, NSW. He was instrumental in the development of antivenins for many of Australia’s deadly snakes and spiders.
Eric Worrell was born in Sydney in 1924. From an early age he was fascinated by wildlife – but most especially the herpetofauna – frogs, lizards and snakes. At the age of 8, he developed a miniature zoo in the backyard of his home in the eastern Sydney suburb of Paddington. The collection – housed in home made glass cases – included snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, various rodents, and a dingo that had been found wandering around Sydney.
Eric was fortunate enough to find two mentors in Sydney: George Cann - the “Snake man of La Perouse” – who gave educational snake shows on weekends, and George Longley, a naturalist who shared Eric’s love of herpetofauna. Between them, the two men increased Eric’s understanding of Australia’s herpetofauna, and also increased his collection. When George Longley died, he left his collection of lizards to Worrell – the descendants of many of them could still be seen in the Australian Reptile Park for over 5 decades.
When Worrell left school in 1941, he travelled to the Northern Territory to study the wildlife, hoping to make a living out of free-lance journalism. However – he found Darwin devastated by Japanese bombing, and became a blacksmith for the duration of the war. On weekends he explored the countryside – capturing snakes and moving further and further afield. The last few months of the war were spent sharing a hut near the Katherine River with writer companion Roland Robinson – who was studying aboriginal customs. While the pair returned to Sydney after the war, they soon headed back north – collecting a staggering number of specimens, including some previously unknown species. The aboriginals of the area proved invaluable – collecting harmless snakes, lizards and frogs in return for sugar, tea and other necessities.
In 1950 Worrell bought a small patch of land near Woy Woy – coastal New South Wales – and opened his “Ocean beach aquarium” – where he housed some of the creatures he collected. Others went to Melbourne Zoo and Taronga Zoo in Sydney. Returning to the Northern Territory later that year, he was watching an aboriginal corroboree when a native messenger arrived with a telegram, inviting him to become the collector for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne. Antivenin supplies, and supplies of venom itself, were exceedingly low after the retirement and subsequent snake related death of the previous “snake-man”. Worrell contracted to supply venom on a freelance basis – unwilling to give up his travelling and writing.
Eric Worrell went snake collecting around the Murray River in New South Wales – taking with him his old friend, snake-man George Cann. In a few days they captured around 400 tiger snakes, and took them back to the snake pit at the Ocean beach aquarium. Worrell selected the largest tiger snake of the bunch for the first venom milking – and it promptly bit him on the thumb. Fortunately Worrell had some antivenin supplies, and the incident was not fatal. Incidentally – he had followed the approved first aid method at that time – which involved slashing the wound, sucking it, and applying a tourniquet. Do not do this. It is not the correct method.
Up until 1955 the only snake antivenin produced for general distribution was for tiger snakes. This had some effect in treating sufferers of other bites, including that of the sea snake, but for many years, a taipan bite was almost universally fatal. In 1950 Kevin Budden, a young snake collector, was fatally bitten by a taipan he had caught for milking purposes. Worrell and two amateur snake catchers – Wal Lorking and John Dwyer – went to the Queensland cane fields in search of taipans for milking. An antivenin was desperately needed – it was becoming impossible to persuade cane workers to work in the fields due to the risk of taipan bites. Worrell and his team managed to supply sufficient taipans for the Serum Laboratories to develop an antivenin. In 1953, Worrell successfully bred taipans – becoming the first park in Australia to do so
Venom collection from various other deadly snakes followed, including the brown snake, the death adder, and the development of a polyvalent antivenin.
In 1958, the Ocean beach aquarium became too small for Worrell’s collection. It was moved to Wyoming, New South Wales. The park continued its advances in conservation and the development of venom. The park was moved to Gosford, NSW in 1996, and has received various tourism awards and grants. It was partly destroyed by fire in 2000 – wiping out the huge indoor collection of lizards, frogs, snakes and other animals. The park has since been rebuilt.
Eric Worrell received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 1970 for his work in developing antivenins. He died of a heart attack at the age of 63 in 1987. A popular rumour is extant stating that he died from a snake bite, but I could find no confirmation of this, and the reptile park website lists his cause of death as heart attack. Worrell is survived by his children, who continue to run the Australian Reptile Park.
Worrell wrote several books and papers over his career. These included:
- Dangerous Snakes of Australia and New Guinea
- Song of the Snake
- Australian Reptile Park (A.R.P.)
- Reptiles of Australia
- Australian Wildlife
- Australian Snakes, Crocodiles, Tortoises
- The Great Barrier Reef
- The Great Extermination (part author ) by Alan Moorhead
- Trees of the Australian Bush (co-author)
- Making Friends with Animals
- Australians Birds and Animals
- Things that Sting
- Numerous scientific papers and popular natural history articles in Walkabout, Wildlife, Australian Outdoors, Pix and People Magazines.
“Australian Snake Man” by Roy Norry, published by Thomas Nelson Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1977.