In Lobitos, Peru
After serving in the RAMC in the last war, he became medical officer on oilfields in Peru, where he was able to extend his knowledge of reptiles. Similarly, his BMJ obituary states that he practised in the Lobitos oilfields of Peru, where he made a special study of snakes.
…he told a reporter how for eleven years he has spent all the time he could spare searching for strange and often dangerous reptiles in the jungles and deserts of South America…“To get into forest country we had to go six days’ mule ride across the desert, about 100 miles journey”, he said. He declined to admit that there were any dangers. “Of course, pumas would come and eat our meat at night sometimes, but they never touched us. Then we had to send the mules back at once—vampire bats used to suck their blood…I have bought home with me two rare fer de lance snakes. They are very interesting little beasts—specially adapted to desert life and very poisonous…”
The Times (11 December 1932) announced his appointment at the Zoo:
Curator of Reptiles at the Zoo
Miss Joan Procter’s SuccessorDr Burgess Barnett, a corresponding member of the society, has been appointed Curator of Reptiles to the Zoological Society, and will take up his appointment next May  on his return from Lobitos…For many years Dr Barnett has devoted his leisure to living reptiles and amphibians, and has sent as gifts to the society a very large number. On his visits home he was a frequent visitor to the Reptile House and often assisted the late curator, Miss Joan Procter, in the handling of dangerous snakes in the laboratory…The council of the society were anxious to get a curator who was not merely a scientific specialist, but who would carry on the late Miss Procter’s work on the lines she originated. It was with special pleasure that it was found possible to obtain the services of Dr Burgess Barnett, as the late curator, a few days before her death, told the secretary of the society that she would be quite content if Dr Barnett were to succeed her.
Dr Burgess Barnett, the new curator of Reptiles at the London Zoo, has just arrived in this country. He flew from Amsterdam with a three-foot crocodile [presumably a cayman], the first to cross the Channel in an aeroplane. In his baggage were a monkey, a gaudily coloured toucan, a few foxes, and several very poisonous snakes…”It is far too early yet to talk about new plans at the Zoo. I have got to settle down first and get used to the weather”.
Cobra’s Deadly Poison
Zoo Attack Foiled by GlassA black cobra, which has the habit of spitting venom with deadly accuracy, [sic] at the eyes of anyone who excites its anger, arrived at the London Zoo yesterday. It was one of the specimens in a collection of reptiles presented by Mr St Alban Smith, a resident of the Malay States. A keeper, wearing goggles and armed with the nooses which are used in dealing with dangerous snakes, ushered the black cobra into its den. The moment it was free it looked round for a victim and saw Dr Burgess Barnett, the Curator of Reptiles, standing not six feet away. At once there came a spurt of venom, but Dr Barnett only laughed—for there was a sheet of plate-glass between him and the angry snake. “It was an excellent shot,” he said afterwards. “If there had been no glass to intercept it the poison would have caught me in the eye and I should have been blind for months.”
An exhibition of reptile skins was opened yesterday at the Imperial Institute, South Kensington, by Lieutenant-Colonel DJ Colville, Parliamentary Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade…The exhibition, a description of which was given in The Times of February 9, illustrates modern uses of the skins of snakes, lizards and crocodiles.
Sir,—The exhibition of reptile skins now being held at the Imperial Institute has for its object the further popularizing of these skins for fancy leather and the increase in the trade in them within the Empire. Already hundreds of thousands of reptiles are killed annually for their skins, and there would appear to be a danger of disastrously disturbing the balance of life if their collection increases or continues unregulated.
On the other hand, much good might result if the expedition would popularize the use of leather from such poisonous snakes as cobras and Russell’s vipers. It is usually dangerous to interfere with the balance of nature in any way, but as these snakes are responsible for many thousands of deaths annually in India they probably do more harm than good.
But in any case Dr Barnett must surely agree that there are vast tracts of country where no restrictions are wanted, the Amazon Delta, for example, the forest of the upper reaches of the Amazon and other parts of Brazil, the immense stretches of uncultivated land in Nigeria, and the jungles of Java and Malaya; here there are thousands of square miles with a huge reptile population and no cultivation at all.
Radio Charms Cobras, Pythons and Boa Constrictors at London Zoo Before Large AudienceRadio sets have now reached such a state of perfection that snakes can be charmed by broadcast. This was demonstrated before a large audience on Friday, in the Reptile House at the Zoo, when deadly cobras, harmless pythons, and a small boa constrictor were charmed by oriental music received on a new Philco high-fidelity set. The demonstration was held under the strict supervision of Dr Burgess Barnett, MRCS, LRCP, FZS, Curator of the Reptile House at the London Zoo. When snake charmers’ music came through the set with amazing true-to-life reproduction the cobras did their famous Dance of Death. Later when the cobras were taken away the pythons and boa constrictors wrapped themselves lovingly around the set.
Dr Burgess Barnett…was bitten yesterday by a South African night adder while examining a recently-arrived consignment of snakes. The bite might have proved fatal if Dr Barnett had not known how to deal with it, as a bite from that particular species may cause death in a few minutes. Dr Barnett, however, cut the wound immediately and applied potassium permanganate crystals. Dr G.M. Vevers, the Zoo superintendent, arrived with serum, which was injected, and Dr Barnett was taken to the Hospital for Tropical Diseases as a precaution.
Dr Barnett’s job of handling thousands of reptiles was reputed to be the most dangerous in the country. Every day he faced agonising death—but only once did he get badly bitten. That was on the eve of his retirement on being appointed superintendent of Rangoon Zoological Gardens. A South African night viper, one of the deadliest of all snakes, bit him as it was being unpacked on arrival from Cape Town. Dr Barnett was in hospital for a week.
In 1934 he learnt from the Professor of Physiology at Bart’s, Hamilton Hartridge, that snake venoms affect the way the blood clots. This led Gwyn to the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park where he met the Curator of Reptiles, Dr Burgess Barnett, who seems to have been instantly fired by Gwyn’s enthusiasm. He agreed that, together, they should explore the effects on blood coagulation of venom from a large number of poisonous snakes in the Zoo. Thus started one of the most productive areas of Gwyn’s research.
In reading Gwyn’s own account of his early activities in this field there is no doubt that extracting venom from snakes did not come easily! Writing about this period many years later he recounts that he developed a genuine aversion to snakes and often had nightmares about them. However, he and Barnett managed to collect venom from about 20 different species, made appropriate dilutions, and tested them on haemophiliac blood to see if they shortened the clotting time. The venom of the first group of snakes tested, colubrines including kraits and cobras, turned out, if anything, to be anticoagulant. On the other hand, the vipers included several that had quite a marked coagulant effect; crotaline snakes were sometimes coagulant, sometimes not. But the one venom which stood out was that of Russell’s viper, which at a dilution of 1:10000 clotted haemophiliac blood in 17 seconds. In fact, in subsequent experiments Gwyn showed that Russell’s viper venom ha a measurable effect on haemophiliac blood at a dilution of 1:10000000, or more2. He was very excited by these early results because it appeared that this venom might be a useful local haemostatic for controlling haemophilic bleeding. Initially it was used in a 1:10000 solution and seemed to be effective in stopping surface bleeding. It was then tested on a haemophilic patient who needed a tooth extraction and appeared to prevent much of the expected bleeding. This approach was used successfully and formed the basis for an important paper in the Lancet in 19343. The venom was later produced commercially by Burroughs Wellcome under the name of Stypven.
Leaving the Zoo
His obituary in BMJ mentions that he resigned from the zoo after five years (i.e. 1937) in order to devote his time to further research on snake venom and it application in medicine. Where he did that research I have not been able to determine. Was it with MacFarlane, or with Burroughs Wellcome?
Protests at Zoo Meeting…Lieutenant-Colonel WPC Tenison moved the rejection of the annual report, and made a protest against the fact that notices of dismissal had been given to Dr Burgess-[sic]Barnett, curator of the Reptile House. The dismissals were on “grounds of economy”, according to the council of the society. When the motion was put to the vote the voting was equal. Lord Onslow, who presided, then gave his casting vote against the motion and declared it lost. Lieutenant-Colonel Tenison then moved that the matter should be further considered by the council of the society, and this motion was carried…
[Note added 9 February 2020: On reading Solly Zuckerman's autobiography, From Apes to Warlords, it would appear that money was tight in 1937 when Barnett's post was proposed for abolition. However, and presumably as a result of the protests by Council members, the newly vacant position of Prosector was not filled. The money saved was used to fund Barnett's continuation in his job. As noted though, he did not stay for long.]
Dr. Burgess Barnett continued his researches on the medical properties of snake venom, and on his leaving the Society's employ, was given a grant of £600 with the aid of which he is prosecuting them further during the present year.
|Animal and Zoo Magazine
July 1938 (volume 3, No. 2)
Dr Burgess Barnett, who was curator of reptiles at the London Zoological Gardens in 1932-37, and since then has been doing research on snake venom, has been appointed superintendent of the Zoological Gardens at Rangoon. Dr Barnett will take up the new post in June.
Dr Barnett said last night that a new reptile house was being built at the Rangoon Zoo, and he intended to continue his experiments with snake venom and its application to medical practice. He also hoped to establish what might be called a snake farm, for the collection of venom of different kinds…The Rangoon Zoo, he said, was not large, but was an old-established one situated in the Victoria Park, and was notable for having housed the sacred white elephant which was taken by the British Army in the Burmese war of the last century.
Fortified by a report that all animals of a dangerous nature had been destroyed, we made our entry only to discover that some were very much alive and outside their cages! There was a very tense moment when it was discovered that a ‘tree trunk’ was really a crocodile, and a ‘rope’ hanging from a tree was a full-sized boa constrictor. There was also an orang-utan loose in the town, handing out a nice line in assault and battery to anyone who crossed its path.
Retreat from Burma
A final attempt will be made to wean from the perilous Tibet [!] border, the balance of Roland’s [sic] party, which was not rescued by soldiers, and another party headed by Burgess Barnett, formerly of the London Zoo.
The noise from the doctor’s house…”sounded like a football match”. He thought he might have to go in and “rescue him all over again” (Flight by Elephant)
Gyles Mackrell, Messrs. Octavius Steel and Company, CalcuttaMr Mackrell, while in charge of the elephant transport, heard that a number of refugees were attempting to reach Assam over the Chaukan pass. In appalling weather he led his elephants by forced marches over a route hitherto considered impracticable. At great personal risk and after several vain attempts he took them across the flooded river, the bed of which consisted of shifting boulders. He thus rescued 68 sepoys and 33 other persons who were facing starvation. Without medical assistance he fed and doctored them until they were fit to proceed. He fell ill with severe fever, but remained behind and was responsible for saving the lives of over 200 persons. Mr Mackrell showed the highest initiative and personal courage, and risked hardships which might easily have proved fatal.
Burgess Barnett MRCS LRCP, Principal Medical Officer, Burma China Railway Construction. Dr Burgess Barnett was a member of the party which evacuated from Burma via the Chaukan Pass and was one of the last dozen men to be rescued from Tilung Hka. Although he is an elderly man he elected to remain with the remnants of the party until the end. He thus secured to them the medical attention they all so sorely needed. Dr Burgess Barnett’s conduct throughout this long and difficult march over uninhabited country, in the most trying conditions of the monsoon, was worthy of the best traditions of the medical service.
Sadly, Burgess Barnett lived for only eighteen months after his rescue. He died on a tea estate in Dooars, Bengal, on 9 April 1944, aged 56. His death was widely reported in the British press (an obituary in The Times on 19 June, for example) and attributed to heart failure. The catalogue describing some of his letters to a niece (see above6) shows that on 6 May 1943 he was considering taking a tea-garden medical practice about 100 miles east of Darjeeling. His final letter sent on 15 February 1944 suggests that he had done so. It was sent from Matelli, Jalpaiguri, Dooars, North Bengal. Matelli is in the heart of tea country near the Bhutan border.
Burgess Barnett’s Book, The TerrariumI have scanned The Terrarium. A copy in .pdf format can be downloaded from my other blog which is concerned with the development of wild animal husbandry, particularly of reptiles, amphibians and birds:
Last Updated 12 February 2024