The Mad Aussie Who Stung Himself and His 9 Year Old Son With a Deadly Creature FOR SCIENCE!!!
Australia is infamous for its abundance of absurdly dangerous wildlife. From highly-venomous brown snakes and funnelweb spiders to giant saltwater crocodiles and great white sharks, nearly everything that slithers, crawls, or swims in the Land Down Under seems perfectly designed to inflict the most horrible death possible. But one Aussie creature stands above the rest, its sting so painful its victims literally beg for death. It is a creature so mysterious and elusive that up until 60 years ago, science didn’t even know it existed.
For thousands of years, the Aborigines of Australia’s northern coasts have known that to swim in the ocean between the months of November and May is to risk an ordeal painful beyond description. At first, the victim feels only a mild burning sensation, no more painful than a bee sting. But ten to fifteen minutes later, they are suddenly struck down with a crippling combination of symptoms. As Australian biologist Lisa Gershwin explains:
“It gives you incredible lower back pain that you would think of as similar to an electric drill drilling into your back. It gives you relentless nausea and vomiting. How does vomiting every minute to two minutes for up to 12 hours sound? Incredible. It gives waves of full body cramps, profuse sweating … the nurses have to wring out the bed sheets every 15 minutes. It gives you very great difficulty in breathing where you just feel like you can’t catch your breath. It gives you this weird muscular restlessness so you can’t stop moving but every time you move it hurts.”
And if that weren’t enough, victims are also often struck with an overwhelming feeling of looming dread:
“Patients believe they’re going to die and they’re so certain of it that they’ll actually beg their doctors to kill them just to get it over with.”
If the victim is lucky, these systems persist for up to 24 hours before gradually fading away. If not, severe hypertension can lead to death from heart failure or cerebral haemorrhage.
As more and more white Australians began living and vacationing in the area around the Great Barrier Reef, reports of this mysterious syndrome began trickling back to the medical community. Among the first to study the phenomenon was Dr. Ronald Southcott, who in the 1940s dubbed the incidents “Type A Stingings” to distinguish them from the more well-known “Type B Stingings” inflicted by Chironex Fleckeri, the Australian Box Jellyfish. The Box Jellyfish is the bane of every Australian swimmer. Growing up to 30 centimetres wide with 60 tentacles four metres long, their nematocysts are among the fastest objects in the natural world and are powerful enough to penetrate the carapace of a crab. The venom they deliver is so potent that a mere two metres of tentacle can kill a grown man in under two minutes. And if that wasn’t enough, unlike regular jellyfish which are largely blind and drift passively with ocean currents, box jellyfish possess 24 surprisingly sophisticated eyes and can swim at speeds up to 3 knots. These creatures have killed around 100 Australians since record-keeping began and seriously injured countless more, and fear of them regularly shuts down beaches for six months of the year across a 5000-kilometre stretch of Australia’s northern coast. But despite its ubiquity, the venom of the Box Jellyfish did not match the highly-specific symptoms of Type A Stingings – nor did any of the other ‘usual suspects’ like the Portuguese Man ’o War.
Southcott’s research was taken up in the 1950s by Dr. Hugo Flecker, a pioneer of jellyfish research and the namesake of Chironex Fleckeri. While Flecker suspected that Type A Stingings were caused by some sort of jellyfish, he was unable to find any nematocysts – the syringe-like stinging cells jellyfish use to inject their venom – on any victims. Unable to finger a definitive culprit, in 1952 Flecker grouped the symptoms together under the name “Irukandji Syndrome,” after an Aboriginal tribe native to the area of Northern Australia where the phenomenon was most common.
For nearly a decade the cause of Irukandji Syndrome remained a mystery, until in 1958 an eccentric doctor named Jack Barnes arrived in the northern town Cairns. Born on April 2, 1922 on a sheep station outside Charleville, Queensland, in 1942 Jack Handyside Barnes suspended his medical studies to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force and spent the war fighting the Japanese on the island of Timor. After the war he returned to medicine, becoming Medical Superintendent of Thursday Island Hospital before setting up his own practice in Cairns in 1958. That year he was tasked by the local branch of the British Medical Association with finally tracking down the cause of Irukandji Syndrome.
According to his associate Dr. Graham Cossins, Barnes was:
“…irritable and belligerent, … demanding and critical, unsociable and rude…but under that gruff exterior was a kindly and compassionate associate”.
This prickly personality also belied the sharp and analytical mind of a detective, which allowed Barnes to make several key deductions about his prey. First, as nobody had ever seen the creature, Barnes reasoned it must be very small and nearly transparent. Second, as most victims were stung in relatively shallow water, it must stay close to the surface. Third, as stingings tended to occur in clusters, it must occur in large numbers; and finally, the creature must be mobile, as none had ever been found washed up on the beach. Poring through hospital reports, Barnes discovered that 85% of Irukandji cases occurred in only two places: Palm and Ellis Beaches. And after analyzing tidal charts, he quickly discovered why: every winter, sustained northerly winds reversed local tidal flows, bringing in fresh currents from the Timor and Coral Seas – and with them the causative agent of Irukandji Syndrome. It was here that Barnes focused his search for the elusive Irukandji creature.
Over the next three years, Barnes spent hundreds of hours sitting on the seafloor in a weighted diving suit, laying out traps cobbled together from flour sifters and staring upwards in the hopes of spotting the creature’s silhouetted against the sunlight filtering down from the surface. It was tedious, unrewarding work, with Barnes’ traps quickly becoming clogged with assorted marine life. But on December 10, 1961, his patience paid off as he finally found what he was looking for: a tiny, nearly-transparent jellyfish barely more than a centimetre across. On the same day, another specimen was caught by lifeguard Don Ludbey, who noticed a small, nearly invisible creature clinging by one tentacle to an erratically-swimming fish.
But was this tiny creature really the cause of Irukandji Syndrome? While most scientists would have started by analyzing the venom’s chemical composition or testing the creature’s sting on an animal, Barnes had other ideas, skipping straight to human experimentation. As for the test subjects, this included Barnes himself, of course, along with local lifeguard Chilla Ross and, controversially, Barnes’ own 9-year-old son, Nick. Barnes’ description of what happened next, from his 1964 paper Cause and Effect in Irukandju Stinging, is disturbingly clinical and detached, perhaps appropriately for a father who no doubt sentenced his son to a lifetime of crippling trust issues:
“The first Carybdeid was applied to an adult (J.B.), and to a boy, aged nine years (N.B.). A robust young life-saver (C.R.) volunteered to test the second specimen, of similar size to the first. The jellyfish was placed in contact with the inner surface of the upper arm of each volunteer. The effects were not long in coming.
The lad reported mild abdominal pain twelve minutes after being stung, and two minutes later declared he had an ache in both armpits, that abdominal pain was worsening rapidly, and that his back was hurting. Within 20 minutes, the two adults noted aching in both axillae, followed almost immediately by backache and by discomfort around the lower ribs anteriorly. Back pain was maximal in the sacral area, deep and “boring” in nature.
Severe abdominal pain, the most constant feature of the Irukandji syndrome, was well established in all cases within 30 minutes. … Subjects were seized with a remarkable restlessness, and were in constant movement. … As the pains increased, initiative was notably depressed, and cerebration, though accurate, was decidedly sluggish. … Palpation of painful areas, now including arms and legs, showed muscle groups in tonic contraction, little short of spasm. This possibly explains the peculiar postures noted, for extremes of flexion and extension were avoided, and the volunteers adopted a stance, which I can best liken to that of an infant with a full nappy.”
During the 20 minutes drive to Cairns, the victims were in considerable distress, heightened, it seemed by the necessity to remain seated. All had abdominal and back pain, pain in the anterior chest wall with some difficulty in breathing, and diffuse aches in muscles and joints. … N.B. felt very cold and was shivering violently.
Forty minutes after the stinging, the abdominal musculature of the three subjects was in unrelenting spasm, so rigid as to warrant fully the term “board-like.” … Undoubtedly, the advent of coughing and retching marked the peak of misery for the two adults. Each spasm increased the gripping pains in the chest and abdomen, and as these eased, the cycle was repeated.”
This absurdly reckless experiment confirmed Barnes’ suspicion: that this tiny, seemingly innocuous jellyfish was indeed the cause of the mysterious Irukandji Syndrome. Following the publication of Barnes’ groundbreaking paper in 1964, the creature was dubbed Carukia barnesi in his honour. Over the next two decade, Barnes dedicated his life to the study of the Irukandji and other jellyfish, mobilizing a network of medical practitioners to report cases of Irukandji stingings and inform bathers of the dangers. In the course of his research, he discovered that many jellyfish refuse to sting though a synthetic barrier, and took to wearing women’s pantyhose while wading in the ocean to collect samples. This practice was soon widely adopted among lifeguards. Barnes also pioneered the now-common practice of washing a jellyfish sting with alcohol or vinegar to kill any remaining stinging cells. Barnes was appointed a Member of the British Empire in 1970 for his work and died in 1985 of a heart attack. Though he ultimately succeeded in passing on his mad scientist genes, his reckless approach to toxicology won him the title of “At-Risk Survivor” at the 1997 Darwin Awards.
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In case snakes, spiders, jellyfish, crocodiles, and sharks aren’t enough to discourage you from visiting Australia, here are a few more lesser-known dangerous animals native to the Land Down Under.
While the Irukandji and Box jellyfish are infamous for their painful stings, if you really want to know what pain is, then simply find the nearest Stonefish and step on it. Comprising 5 species native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, stonefish are so-named for their remarkable resemblance to an algae-covered rock, which allows them to lay perfectly camouflaged among the coral waiting for prey to swim by. If threatened or stepped on, the stonefish raises a set of razor-sharp dorsal fin spines which can easily pierce a sandal or diving boot and inject the most powerful venom of any known fish. The effect of this venom is often described as the worst pain in the world – so much so that death by stonefish is typically due not to the venom itself but rather shock induced by the sheer agony. Thankfully, however, an antivenin is available, and treating the wound with very hot water effectively breaks down and neutralizing the venom, meaning that fatalities are relatively rare.
Back on the surface, perhaps the most well-known Australian bird is the Emu, a giant flightless ratite famous for defeating an army of machine-gun-wielding soldiers in what has come to be known as the Emu War of 1932. But as badass as this feat is, the Emu has nothing on the Cassowary. Standing 2 metres tall and capable of running at speeds of up to 50km/hr, the Cassowary is armed with a fearsome 12-centimetre claw on its centre toe capable of inflicting a deadly kick when threatened. Its skull is also equipped with a thick bony ridge or “casque” that allows the bird to run full-tilt through dense vegetation. Despite its intimidating appearance, however, the Cassowary is a shy and solitary bird, living mainly on fruits and berries in the dense rainforests of Northwestern Australia. However, in recent years urban and agricultural development has lead to the significant loss of the Cassowary’s preferred habitat, increasingly forcing the birds to wander into urban areas looking for food – and increasing the chances of a deadly encounter with humans.
But if you thought for a moment that you’d find safety in the realm of flying birds, think again. In 2017, an article in the Journal of Ethnobiology by Robert Gosford, Mark Bonta and others presented the first recoded evidence of a phenomenon that had been reported by Australian Aborigines for thousands of years. The team observed birds of prey such as the Black Kite, Whistling Kite, and Brown Falcon lifting burning branches from brushfires and using them to start fires elsewhere. The birds would then pick off mice and other small animals fleeing the blaze or feast on the charred corpses of the ones who didn’t make it. Because of course corpse eating arsonist birds are a thing in Australia.
And finally we come to that most distinctively weird of all Aussie animals- the duck-billed platypus. While this egg-laying, half-duck, half-beaver-looking creature may look adorable and harmless, the male of the species packs a powerful punch in the form of two sharp spurs on its hind legs. These are capable of delivering a peptide-based venom whose effects have been described as excruciating and resistant to most common painkillers such as morphine. The extensive swelling induced by the venom can last for months, while residual pain can persist for years. Interestingly, the fossil record suggests that until relatively recently, venomous spurs were a common feature of many mammals, with the platypus being the sole surviving possessor of this trait. And, of course, the sole survivor of this one would exist in Australia…Expand for References
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