Today Sydney-siders take for granted that our local spiders, in particular the Sydney funnel-web, are dangerous and to be treated with caution, but, surprisingly, surprisingly, this caution only came about in the 1920s.
In 1927 an inquest at Hornsby local court found that the death of a little boy had arisen due to the bite of a spider. This was an unusual finding as it was the first time a death had been formally attributed to what we know today as the Sydney funnel-web (Atrax robustus).
The little boy was Clyde Thompson, just under two years old. His family lived on Clifford Avenue in Thornleigh, and he was sitting on the laundry steps, with his parents close by, when he let out a scream. A bleeding bite on his little finger suggested that he had been holding the spider, which his father found, half crushed, near by. Although his distraught parents attempted to treat him and called in the doctor, Clyde died that night.
Throughout the 19th century Australian colonists had been little concerned by spiders, least of all Sydney’s own endemic arachnid. While scattered reports of serious bites from spiders in Australia and New Zealand had appeared, neither Aboriginal people nor a century’s worth of settlers had recorded enough encounters that either the redback (Latrodectus hasselti) or the Sydney funnel-web (Atrax robustus) were thought to be particularly harmful. While the settlers had soon realised their homes would be shared with local huntsman spiders, what was most despised about them was their ‘guilty’ scuttling away from humans. Despite branding them ‘voconias’, ‘triantelopes’ or ‘tarantulas’ after reputedly venomous varieties in both the old and new worlds, colonists rarely feared their bite. Little research had even been done into spiders, which were often classed with insects.
When first describing Atrax robustus in 1877, British arachnologist Octavius Pickard Cambridge referred to this ‘primitive’ spider’s ‘large, massive and very prominent’ fangs. But he passed little further comment when categorising it alongside similarly hairy specimens from across the globe. It has since been established that Atrax robustus only lives within a circle approximately 160 km from the centre of Sydney. These spiders are found as far north as the Hunter Valley, in Lithgow to the west, and the Shoalhaven to the south of the capital.
The inquest into Clyde’s death in 1927 caused a rapid reassessment of ‘the consensus of medical opinion’, and it was ‘strongly against the spider’. Indeed, with no firm records of spider bite deaths either in the medical literature or appearing in the NSW Department of Public Health’s statistics, Neville Davis, the doctor who had attended young Clyde, submitted during the inquest that ‘I realise that death from a spider bite is an extremely rare occurrence’. Based upon his testimony however, and the dramatic presentation by the investigating constable of ‘the spider – a big black one’, the Coroner, H Richardson Clark, ‘found that the child had died from the effects of the spider bite’
The Sydney funnel-web’s near relative, Atrax formidablis, found in other parts of NSW was also identified as dangerous in 1926, and a decade later entomologist Keith McKeown from the Australian Museum observed that the funnel-web ‘has become a creature to be feared, and its name known throughout the country on account of its deadliness to man’. He added that ‘The question is often asked: ‘Why were no cases of bite by Funnel-web Spiders known before 1927, since these spiders must have been equally, if not more, prevalent prior to that date?’ McKeown’s own explanation was twofold: in the first instance, misidentification of this ‘sinister and repulsive’ spider which had hitherto escaped popular notice, and secondly, the potential for spider bites to be treated as snake bites on account of the substantial puncture wounds made by the funnel-web’s prodigious fangs. He enthused rather morbidly, ‘Few creatures are armed with such terrible weapons, and there are very few snakes which have fangs that can compare with them for size and efficiency’.
The confluence of these events provoked a flurry of correspondence both in the Medical Journal of Australia and to Australian natural history museums, as well as a sudden upsurge in fatal case reports. Hitherto, spider specimens were rarely if ever forwarded for identification, but from 1927 there was a notable if not dramatic increase in members of the public seeking reassurance from the Australian Museum that a spider located in their environs was ‘quite harmless’ or ‘non-poisonous’
Another Museum entomologist, Anthony Musgrave, reported that ‘The recent death of a baby boy at Thornleigh, near Sydney, following on the bite [of an Atrax robustus] has caused great public interest in spiders and many have been sent to the Australian Museum for determination’. The NSW Government Statistician likewise began compiling data, such that by the time Walter Froggatt and Keith McKeown published the first popular books on Australian spiders in the mid-1930s, the infamy of the funnel-web was assured and the redback was finally acknowledged as being potentially fatal.
Amid development of commercial antivenenes for black widow spider bite in America in the mid-1930s, McKeown called for a similar program in Australia. He noted that there remained ‘a very wide field for research’ awaiting those interested in the venoms of the redback and funnel-web spider. An antivenom for redback spider bites was introduced in Australia in 1956.
Between 1927 and 1981, 13 deaths from the Sydney funnel-web’s bite occurred. In 1980 an anti-venom was produced at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne, led by Struan Sutherland. Since its release in 1981, no further deaths have been attributed to the spider.
About the author
Dr Peter Hobbins is Principal Historian at Artefact Heritage Services, an Honorary Affiliate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney and a Royal Australian Historical Society Councillor. His published work has included histories of Australian medical research, venomous creatures in Australasia, quarantine and aviation medicine. Dr Hobbins is the author of two books, ‘Venomous Encounters: Snakes, Vivisection and Scientific Medicine in Colonial Australia’ (2017) and, with Dr Ursula K Frederick and Associate Professor Anne Clarke, ‘Stories from the Sandstone: Quarantine Inscriptions from Australia’s Immigrant Past’ (2016). He appears on 2SER for the Dictionary in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Peter!