Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

The Young Poisoner’s Handbook

October 18th, 2013

Sir Joseph Fayrer’s account of the Thanatophidia is important as a classic, systematic account of the venomous snakes of India. This second edition (the first was in 1872) was improved with the addition of text, even though the 31 lithographs (including 28 chromolithos) are identical in both editions.

Fayrer conducted extensive studies of the poison apparatus in Indian snakes and was responsible for many advances in the treatment of snakebite, including the use of potassium permanganate, of which he was the originator.

Image of a cobra, Ophiophagus Elaps (plate 8) from Fayrer's the Thanatophidia of India

Above:  Plate 8 (Ophiophagus Elaps) from Joseph Fayrer’s The Thanatophidia of India,  second edition. London: J. and A. Churchill, 1874. Call Number: H199. Click image to enlarge.

The venomous snakes, and by extension all snakes, get a bad rap for what is primarily an extremely efficient food-getting mechanism, only secondarily defensive.  Unless they are themselves attached, they kill other animals only for food.  How else to get supper without either arms or legs?  For a snake, there’s constriction or there’s fangs, although the spitting cobras of Africa send their poison by air-mail, blinding their victim.  There is some question among herpetologists about whether the black mamba (the largest venomous snake in Africa) or the cobra, shown here in a very striking pose, will actually attack a human.  Most snakes will try to escape a predator. In the United States, some species, such as the cottonmouth, will stand their ground and strike if the unwary come to close.

Sally Haines
Rare Books Cataloger
Adapted from her Spencer Research Library exhibit and catalog, Slithy Toves: Illustrated Classic Herpetological Books at the University of Kansas in Pictures and Conservations