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Resistance to Venom

Some people have a higher than average resistance to snake venom. There are many numerous examples of snake handlers and performers, particularly from the turn of the century, who appear to have suffered few ill effects after being bitten.

A series of bizarre experiments was carried out by Saul Weiner, in 1958, to test the theory that people can develop an immunity to snake venom. His willing human guinea pig was 46-year-old Charles Tanner, an animal curator of the Alfred Hospital, in Melbourne, Australia. Tanner had already been bitten several times by venomous snakes and was allergic to anti-venom. The experiment involved injecting Tanner with venom milked from tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus), the dosage being gradually increased from 0.002mg to 25mg over a period of 13 months. The result of his final injection - which, under normal circumstances, would have been enough to kill 30 men - was nothing more than tenderness and muscle stiffness.

August Eichorn, a household name in Australia at the turn of the century, spent many years developing a remedy to snake bite. He was so confident of his new product (which almost certainly gave no immunity at all) that he became quite a performer - and coaxed snakes to bite him to demonstrate its efficacy. There are numerous photos taken at the time , showing Eichorn accepting bites from some of Australia's most dangerous snakes - tigers (Notechis scutatus) and browns (Pseudonaja textilis) among them - on his arms, hands and face. There are photographs of tiger snakes clinging to his cheeks and hanging from his throat and he would even allow them to bite him under his tongue. On one occasion, he encouraged three tiger snakes to bite him simultaneously - and still showed no ill effects. He eventually died in 1943, at the grand old age of 85, from blood poisoning.

In general, venomous snakes are fairly resistant to their own venom and to the venom of other individuals of their own and closely related species. However, the level of immunity is unclear and may even vary from individual to individual. There are cases of venomous snakes being bitten by one of their contemporaries and surviving with little more than a swelling, but there are also cases of venomous snakes accidentally biting themselves and dying within a couple of days.
When one poisonous snake eats another, it apparently suffers no ill-effects from the venom because of a 'protective factor' in their blood; it is hoped that this factor could help to make a multipurpose anti-venom for people bitten by deadly snakes (existing anti-venoms act only against specific snake species).