Saturday, 20 February 2010


“Poison of asps is under our lips”?
Why do you wrench them apart?

To learn how the venom makes and drips

And works its way to the heart?

It is unjust that when we have done

All that a serpent should,

You gather our poisons, one by one,

And thin them out to your good.

There are innumerable creatures in the Mata Atlantica, and more widely in Brazil, who exist to sting, bite or poison you. The answer lies in the Butantan Institute of Sao Paulo.

Butantan was founded in 1901 by the Brazilian scientist Vital Brazil - one of history's greatest examples of a name determining one's fate. Dr. Vital Brazil Mineiro da Campanha was a remarkable figure, working in Public Health so successfully that he was only 36 when appointed director of the new Butantan Institute for Serum Therapy. Vital's new Institute was set up near the city of Sao Paulo.

Well, actually not very near. Research into poisonous animals requires their culture and breeding, and the municipal authorities nervously placed their new institute in an unused swampy area far from the city centre. A description of his Institute 1927 was as follows;

There is, at the far end of one of the never-ending suburbs of San Paulo, a snake-farm where serums are prepared and dispensed against the bites of venomous serpents, which abound in these parts. Like most of the things that matter, it was one man's notion and work. Unluckily, the man himself was up or down coast at the time of our visit. But we found the "farm" sitting alone amid beautiful grounds in a faultless stretch of drive—a big, white, shuttered remote pile in dead heat among the crashing (colours hit here) green of its cut lawns and the raw bosses and clumps of flowers.

Vital's remit was to develop the new technique of antivenom for Brazil. This was the idea that serum derived from a poisoned animal could be used as a remedy for that poison in other animals. Although there is research into genetically engineering bacteria to produce antivenom proteins, the basic process hasn't changed much from those days......

We returned to the outside blaze, on our way back, and passed another silent range of white buildings, where are the horses and such, through whose systems the poisons are attenuated and controlled, so that folk may live longer who would otherwise have died horribly.
Roughly speaking the process begins with an infinitely small injection of poison into a carefully kept horse. He reacts, but lives (for the dose is well known now), and the injection is gradually increased till he can resist, proportionately, as much of the venom as opium-eaters could of laudanum. Then he is tapped for some pints of his blood, and of its serum, duly attenuated and sterilised, the anti-venom is made. When it is administered to a man in need, the two powers war together on the physical side, as one may see the powers of the spirit tearing the soul of a sinner "under conviction" before he finds salvation. Every muscle and nerve and blood corpuscule may be involved, as well as other powers that we know not of; but normally, after the throes and disintegrations, the body recovers and—since it is sister of the soul—throws off and puts behind it in a very little while all that nightmare of experiences in restored health. But, they say, the process is not a pleasant one to watch; and men are thinking and working all their lives to make it less vehement. Yet, after all, the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from but to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine, through the length and breadth of a land.

Anyway, Vital pursued the new field of anti-venoms with gusto, developing remedies not just for the numerous types of poisonous Brazilian snakes, but also the first for scorpions and spiders. He also pioneered the use of polyvalent anti-sera, ie. those effective against several different venoms. This is especially important when one considers how few victims can identify the snake they've just been bitten by.

Of course, the best serum is made from the same breed of snake as bit you. But people are often not accurate when they are bitten, so a 'general' serum is sent to the farmers. It cures—it cures surely—but it takes longer and it hurts a little more than the specialized serum.

Nowadays Butantan is a huge institution, responsible not just for snake and spider anti-venoms, but also vaccine production for rabies, tuberculosis and many other diseases. During the recent swine flu outbreak it was Butantan who were charged with developing Brazil's response and they are by far Latin Americas largest producers of vaccines, with 110 million doses produced in 2001 alone. Butantan's snake collection and museums are also open to the public, and this makes a very popular tourist attraction.

The quotations here have been borrowed (plundered) from the work of Rudyard Kipling. He visited Brazil in 1927 and was given a tour of Butantan. His writings, on this and other aspects of Brazil, can be found at


Anonymous said...

Check this one out

Macaco verde said...

Excellent link! I wish I could find this sort of info on Brazil.

Anonymous said...

There is a novel written by a Brazilian in English, called In Praise of Lies (Patricia Melo) and Butantan is a major part of the plot.