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Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The redback on the dunny seat

Yes, I've been a bit quiet again, mainly because I have been busy on a book that will probably be called Settlers. This will contain some 250,000 words of originally researched Australian social history, mainly in the colonial period, although, as I make very clear, Australian history is a great deal older than that. Australian history did not start when the English invaded Australia, any more than English history started when the Normans invaded England.

This blog entry is derived from part of that work-in-progress.  If and when I have a definite go-ahead from my publisher, I will add a note here, but it will probably come out in 2017.  About 60% of the text is now complete, all written since I floated the idea four months ago as Colonial Concerns.The following is a taster from that.

The Australian redback spider, Latrodectus mactans hasselti, is a close relative of the black widow spider. Its bite can be extremely painful, but it is not usually lethal. Over the years, legends have grown up about redbacks on dunny seats biting people on their nether regions, and I decided to look into it.

First up, the dunny seat is Australian vernacular for a toilet seat, the word 'dunny' probably coming from Scots dialect. The spider shown on the right is a huntsman, or as they called it in colonial times, a triantelope.

They are harmless, but people thought they were tarantulas (hence the name, a corruption of 'tarantula'), and when you look at them closely (left), you can see why people were and still are terrified of them. It is, however, a misplaced fear.




On the right, you can see a genuine Amazonian  tarantula that I came across a year or two back while blatting around the headwaters of the Amazon River. I am fairly sure that it was a pet that our guide had planted there for me to find, but I won't tell if he won't :-)

Back in Australia and the 19th century, settlers and colonists were well aware of the existence of poisonous spiders in other parts of the world, so they regarded Australian spiders with suspicion, even the harmless huntsman, as Louisa Ann Meredith knew in the 1840s: 

The tarantula is not quite so great a favourite with me, as I have strong suspicions of its bite being venomous. At first I understood them to be harmless, although servants and ignorant people hold them in great abhorrence, and, unless too frightened to approach, always kill them when discovered. Certainly the appearance of a full-sized tarantula is by no means prepossessing…

When disturbed they scramble along at a rapid rate, and are very frequent residents behind pictures or furniture against the wall, often causing terrific screams from one’s housemaid, which are somewhat alarming, until, on inquiry, the dreadful words “A Triantelope, Ma’am!” are gasped out, and the tragedy ends in the death, or, as I usually arrange it, the careful expulsion of the intruder…


Several persons of education and intelligence have assured me of their dangerous nature, but I have never yet witnessed an instance of it, and they are such patient and industrious fly-catchers, that so long as they confine their perambulations to the ceiling, or the upper portion of the walls of a room, I never disturb them.

— Louisa Ann Meredith (Mrs Charles Meredith), Notes and Sketches of New South Wales. 1844, 147 – 8.

Given these fears, I thought there must be some basis for it, so I started looking for early reports of spider bites occasioning death. I found plenty of deaths and escapes from snake bite, but none from spider, but then I found three in a row, and I am still not sure why it happened this way.

The first victim was a Bendigo chemist named Phillips was bitten while in “…the closet at the rear of his present residence”. You can read the full news report here:  The Age, 27 December 1862, 7, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/154966880

By chance, a doctor named King was in the house and he hurried out with a candle to find a small black spider on the seat. It had a flat body, with a red mark on its back, making it, without a doubt, a redback spider.

 Phillips’ symptoms included strong pains in the abdomen, the bowels, pain in the spine and muscles, spasms, convulsions, delirium, shivering and sleeplessness. He was treated with cloths dipped in turpentine and applications of liquid ammonia before being calmed with ether, opium and brandy, and he later recovered.

The next two cases happened at Talbot, about 80 km south-west of the Bendigo and just a few months later. Carr’s first spider seems to match a redback in form, if not in colour.

The discrepancy in colour from the standard textbook redback may indicate that his specimen was a juvenile, or possibly the spider was preserved in some fluid that bleached it. The spider on the left above is a juvenile, the one on the right is more mature: notice the differences in colour. The coin in each case is an Australian 50 cents, 37 mm across.

Anyhow, here is the story, as distilled from a news report in The Age (Melbourne), 17 April 1863, 5, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/154965599:

Bites by Venomous Spiders. — In the current number of the Australian Medical Journal, Mr Robert Carr, of Talbot, details two cases in which most severe and constitutional disturbance was caused by the bites of venomous spiders. The tarantula is the only class of spider generally supposed to be poisonous; but it would appear that there is a brown spider, with a yellow streak down the back, the head being of a similar color, which produces, under certain circumstances or in particular constitutions, alarming symptoms, proving the absorption of a most virulent poison by those who happen to be so bitten.

His first of Carr's two cases was a miner named O’Connor, bitten on the scrotum at 6 am on 16 February 1863 “while sitting in a water-closet”. He felt the sting and complained of a tingling sensation, and only called for medical assistance at noon, when Carr found him in agony.

The scrotum, where stung, was red and indurated, but not much swollen, the penis was much enlarged, the prepuce Å“dematous containing a large quantity of white serous fluid, the organ presenting the appearance in fact of one affected with virulent gonorrhÅ“a…

O’Connor had problems breathing, he was dizzy and he suffered loss of sight. Worse, he could not sleep, so he was dosed with opiates, camphor, ginger and laxatives. These, or the passing of time finally improved his situation.

This class of remedies I resorted to from having used them under like circumstances successfully in India, where all kinds of venomous insects abound. In two hours the breathing was relieved, and having persevered in the remedies for twenty-four hours, the patient finally recovered, and all bad symptoms disappeared by six p.m. the following evening. The legs, however, continued very weak, and there was a painful tingling sensation in both feet…

Carr's second case was a Mrs Lithgow, whom he called “very corpulent”. She was bitten under similar circumstances at 5 pm on 23 February, just 400 metres from the O’Connor residence. Bitten close to the groin on the inner right thigh, she had similar symptoms, and was in a critical condition by 11 pm.

I prescribed similar remedies to those stated in the first case, with like results. She sweated profusely. The breathing was relieved in four hours, the irregularity of the heart in eight hours. She dozed a good deal, but never slept till the evening of the second day, after which she quite recovered, the feet, as in the other case, being the last parts affected.”


So if you were wondering, yes, redbacks do sometimes lurk on dunny seats, and yes they can bite you, and yes, you may well wish you were dead, but no, you probably won't die, not unless you are weakened by some other medical condition.