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BMJ. Feb 23, 2002; 324(7335): 488.
PMCID: PMC1122405

Struan Sutherland

An expert on venomous creatures and one of the great larrikins of Australian medicine

In a country famous for its deadly snakes and spiders, Struan Sutherland became a household name for his expertise on venomous creatures. He was also well known as one of the great larrikins of Australian medicine and as a prolific author.

While working at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), Sutherland led efforts to develop an antivenom to the Sydney funnel-web spider and revolutionised treatment of snake bites by developing the pressure-immobilisation first aid technique and venom detection kits.

After an acrimonious departure from CSL, Sutherland founded the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne's department of pharmacology in 1994, where he worked until retiring in 1999.

But Sutherland, who spent his final years battling a rare, degenerative brain disease—striatonigral degeneration—was writing until the end. The second edition of the textbook Australian Animal Toxins, which he co-wrote, was published several months before his death.

In typical Sutherland style, he wrote asking colleagues to review chapters of the text, offering a multiple choice reply. Recipients could tick either “send me a copy asap” or “stuff off.”

Sutherland once said that what he enjoyed most about his work was advising colleagues. Many thousands of doctors rang him at all hours for help in emergencies.

He was a tireless writer, for professional and lay audiences, and even published a guide to hydroponic gardening, one of his many hobbies. He also wrote his own funeral notice, announcing with characteristic dry humour that “Struan would like to inform his friends and acquaintances that he fell off his perch on Friday, 11th January, 2002.” He was 65.

Sutherland left detailed instructions for his memorial service and wake, including that champagne and fruit cake were to be served. He asked his family to cater for 50—but 250 people packed the church.

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It was typical of Sutherland, an enthusiastic cook and host, to put such thought into catering. His widely disseminated “rules of an amateur chef” included such advice as: “Never cook for or eat with anyone you loathe” and “Invite your guests early and try to kick them out by 10.30 pm before one or more of them become very boring, argumentative or critical of their host.”

James Angus, professor of pharmacology at the University of Melbourne, told the service that Sutherland had left a lasting legacy in antivenom research. This was illustrated on the weekend after his death when 150 km of Queensland's beaches were closed by the worst recorded plague of the tiny jellyfish Carukia barnesi. Its sting causes the Irukandji syndrome of intense pain and cardiovascular emergency.

“Struan urged us to research this venom and the Australian Venom Research Unit has just completed exciting research data that will soon be published,” said Angus.

In the forward to his 1998 autobiography, A Venomous Life, Sutherland described autobiography as “an ideal vehicle for self-promotion and subtle shafting of one's enemies,” and a large slab of his is devoted to describing his protracted disputes with CSL management.

The disputes centred around a clash of personalities and cultures—Sutherland's passionate commitment to his research versus CSL's lack of commitment to it at a time of increasing commercialisation. “Generally when I have got into trouble it is because unnecessary obstructions have been put in the way,” wrote Sutherland, who was once described as having a “joyously combative personality.”

He wrote of being suspended twice from CSL: once for calling the director a “swine,” and then for throwing paper clips at another manager—both times in response to funding cuts.

Sutherland's observant, irreverent humour is on fine display in his autobiography, where he penned many a sharp portrait. Dr Michael Wooldridge, a former Australian health minister, is described as a “slightly obese but contented fox,” and Sutherland was no less tough on himself, describing himself variously as stubborn, headstrong, short tempered and, when a new medical graduate, an “overconfident prig.”

He leaves two children.

Struan Sutherland, antivenom researcher and author; b Sydney 1936; q Melbourne 1960; AO, FRCPA, FRACP, MD, DSc; died from striatonigral degeneration on 11 January 2002.


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