A return to Hayman Island: revisiting Australia’s only recorded cone snail fatality after 85 years

Title

A return to Hayman Island: revisiting Australia’s only recorded cone snail fatality after 85 years

Author/s

Healy, J.M.

Citation

Healy, J.M. 2022. A return to Hayman Island: revisiting Australia’s only recorded cone snail fatality after 85 years. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum - Nature 63: 41-83. https://doi.org/10.17082/j.2204-1478.63.2021.2020-09

Accepted

20 October 2020

Published online

20 January 2022

Peer reviewed:

Yes

DOI

https://doi.org/10.17082/j.2204-1478.63.2021.2020-09

Keywords

cone snails, Conus geographus, venomous gastropods, Mollusca, Great Barrier Reef

Abstract

The death of Charles Hugh Garbutt from a cone snail ‘sting’ inflicted at Hayman Island on the Great Barrier Reef marked both a family tragedy and an important moment in Australian medical and malacological history. However, aside from newspaper reports and the few witness statements given at the coronial inquiry, the events of that day in June 1935 and its immediate aftermath have never been critically evaluated. As memories of what happened have either faded or been partly distorted with the passage of time, the fatality today remains only a footnote in the history of studies on the Conidae and their complex, pharmaceutically-valuable venoms. The species involved, Conus geographus Linnaeus, 1758, is now recognised as the most dangerous to humans of the Conidae and responsible for most and possibly all recorded fatalities. After 85 years, the case is revisited using available evidence including newspaper reports, relevant scientific and popular literature, witness statements, archival documents and the actual specimen responsible for the fatality. While tragic and probably avoidable, the death, via its extensive coverage by the press, undoubtedly has helped to save lives by educating a public largely unaware of the dangers from something as seemingly harmless as a sea snail. It is also concluded that Charles Garbutt, when all factors are considered, was most unfortunate to have lost his life in the way that he did. For future cone envenomations it is recommended that photography (if possible) of the specimen involved would assist both in patient reassurance and medical treatment.