Tucked away in a hushed wing of the Brownless Biomedical Library, buried in the middle of the University of Melbourne campus, is the Medical History Museum – and it's worth every effort to find it.
The museum has some 6000 items in its collection relating the history of the Melbourne Medical School, and the history of medicine, dentistry and the health sciences more generally. It has everything you might hope to find in a medical-themed museum – sinister surgical implements and bottled specimens – but it also has plenty of other delights including art, cabinetry, rare books, beautiful brass instruments and painted apothecary jars
The Medical History Museum has two exhibitions each year, carefully curated by Dr Jaqueline Healy. On show right now is Venom: Fear, Fascination and Discovery, which looks at the history of venom research and medical treatment.
Snakes have a long (and unlikely) association with medicine. "For the Greeks and the Romans, the snake was associated with medicine and healing," explains Healy, referring to Asclepius and Hermes who in Greek mythology carried rods entwined by serpents. The symbols still appear in the logos of hundreds of medical institutions around the globe, including the Australian Medical Association. In the case of Asclepius the snake symbolises power, says Healy, the power to heal and to harm. And nowhere is this double-sidedness more apparent than in the case of venoms and anti-venoms.
Melbourne University also has a long association with snakes and other venomous creatures, dating back to the first professor of medicine, George Halford. Unfortunately Professor Halford's ideas turned out to be way off the mark. "He believed that injecting people with ammonia was a useful solution to snake poisoning. Well of course…it wasn’t". After this controversial beginning the University went on to have a very long – and infinitely more successful – involvement with venom research (not least being Professor Struan Sutherland's development of the pressure immobilisation technique to replace the use of tourniquets).
Of course it wasn't just doctors and professors who contributed to venom research. Until anti-venoms were developed, fools and charlatans would flog all manner of 'miracle' cures for snakebites. They weren't exactly the brightest or most ethical bunch, but as Healy points out, "these were also the people who regularly caught and observed snakes. They were the people who provided research facilities with the venom. And without the venom you don’t get the anti-venom."
"That’s one of the beautiful things about this exhibition. It shows that discovery is never a straight line. Discovery happens with a community of people."