Monday, July 9, 2012

Charles Waterton celebrated in new BBC series

200 years ago this year local naturalist Charles Waterton set off on the first of his celebrated ‘Wanderings’ in Guyana in South America. He made three trips into the rainforests and brought back many specimens of bird and animal, which he preserved and displayed in the museum at his home at Walton Hall, near Wakefield.  It was his first trip in which he made one of his most important achievements, bringing back a sample of wourali poison (known today as curare).  

This poison was prepared by the Macusi, an Amerindian tribe, for use on their blow pipe arrows when hunting.  Curare paralyses the body of the victim leaving them unable to breathe for themselves. 

Physicians in Europe were keen to learn more about the poison because of its potential use in medicine but few samples were available to perform tests, and most samples which had previously come into Europe were weak. In 1812, Waterton not only brought back a powerful sample but also observed how it was prepared.  He was even able to perform an experiment with it: he gave some to a female donkey (which he named Wouralia) and using bellows to keep her breathing, he showed that she made a complete recovery, living for another 24 years.
Waterton's experiments on the donkey with curare were detailed in this booklet, published in 1839.  
Although a powerful and controllable substance, curare didn't have a proper role in medicine until the 1940s when it was used with anaesthetics to perform operations. The curare keeps the body of a patient calm and relaxed whilst the anaesthetic makes them unconscious. Without curare a higher dose of anaesthetic is needed which can be dangerous for the patient.

So today Waterton is recognised as bringing curare to Europe to be used in operating theatres around the world.

His discoveries are to be part of a new BBC series on the History of Medicine which Wakefield Museum is helping to research.

A quiver of curare tipped arrows and a bowl used by the Macusi tribe to prepare the poison will be on display in the new Waterton gallery at Wakefield Museum.

Bowl used by the Macusi tribe to prepare curare


  1. I can ge no reply to my queries via the Wakefield official website.
    1. Can you supply a scan of Waterton's Jenny the ape as "Martin Luther's Downfall"?
    2.Waterton wrote that he mounted a chimpanzee sitting on a coconut. Is this in the collection?
    3. In 1865 he dissected a largish gorilla. Was this Jenny? How tall is "Martin Luther's Downfall"? Or is Jenny the ape he acquired in 1856?

    1. Thanks for your enquiry. I am sorry that you have had difficulties getting in touch with us. Which email address were you using? I shall look into it.

      I have passed your message onto our curator. Could you please send some contact details (email address?) to and we will get back to you as soon as possible.


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