Historical Records of Australian Science Historical Records of Australian Science Society
The history of science, pure and applied, in Australia and the southwest Pacific

Serpentine Science: Charles Kellaway and the Fluctuating Fortunes of Venom Research in Interwar Australia

Peter G. Hobbins

Historical Records of Australian Science 21(1) 1 - 34
Published: 06 May 2010


Australian medical research before the Second World War is predominantly viewed as an anodyne precursor to its conspicuous postwar successes. However, the expanding intellectual appeal and state support for local research after 1945 built upon scientific practices, networks, facilities and finances established between 1919 and 1939. Arguably the most prominent medical scientist working in Australia during this period was Charles Kellaway (1889–1952), director of Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute from 1923 until 1944. Facing both financial challenges and a profoundly unsupportive intellectual climate, Kellaway instigated a major research programme into Australian snake venoms. These investigations garnered local and international acclaim, allowing Kellaway to speak as a significant scientific actor while fostering productive laboratory collaborations. The venom work spurred basic research in tissue injury, anaphylaxis and leukotriene pharmacology, yet delivered pragmatic clinical outcomes, particularly an effective antivenene. By selecting a problem of continuing public interest, Kellaway also stimulated wider engagement with science and initiated a pioneering ad hoc Commonwealth grant for medical research. In tracing his training, mentors and practices within the interwar milieu, this article argues that Kellaway's venom studies contributed materially to global biomedical developments and to the broader viability of medical research in Australia.


© Australian Academy of Science 2010

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