Throughout history, snakes have been feared and revered. From the cunning serpent in the Bible to the sacred nagas of Hinduism, humans have developed strong beliefs about snakes, and that’s for good reason. According to the World Health Organization, snakes bite and kill between 81,000 to 138,000 people per year, making snakes one of the world’s deadliest creatures. Snakes are definitely not evil, but they are still wild animals with their own fears and mannerisms. But did you know that a Florida man developed an immunity to snake venom?
Born in New Jersey, in 1910, Bill Haast was infatuated with deadly snakes from a very young age. At age 11, while at a summer camp, he captured a small timber rattlesnake, which bit and envenomed him. He treated the bite at the camp and went to see a doctor, but he recovered without requiring an antivenin.
This is not a remarkable case, since snakes will often refrain from delivering a deadly amount of venom, or they’ll deliver a “dry bite”, which contains no venom at all. But Haast’s relationship with deadly snakes was just getting started.
Since New Jersey isn’t exactly a snake paradise, at age 19, Haast joined a man who had a roadside snake exhibit and went with him to Florida. Here, he roomed with a moonshiner at the edge of the Everglades and became proficient at capturing snakes, which is doubtlessly a rite of initiation among Florida Men.
Anyways, he started working for Pan American airlines and, at the displeasure of his fellow airline employees, brought home snakes from around the world. Soon, he finally had enough snakes and money to open a Serpentarium near Miami. Here, he milked snake venom for antivenins and other medical purposes and displayed reptiles to the general public.
On September 10th, 1948, he began his own unusual program. Seeing that other animals could produce antibodies to fight snake venom, Haast wanted to see if the same processes would occur in humans. So, in true Florida Man fashion, he started injecting himself with a highly diluted amount of cobra venom. If that doesn’t sound like the premise to a bad superhero film, I don’t know what does.
Now, of course, human immunity to venom seems outlandish. When we think of “immunity”, we often think of becoming immune to diseases through vaccines and exposure, and when we think of “venom”, we think of antivenins that are administered after we’ve been envenomed.
In fact, antivenins are basically vaccines that are produced in the bodies of other animals, such as sheep, horses, chickens, and camels. These host animals are injected with snake venom and produce venom-fighting antibodies that are then injected into envenomed humans. In Haast’s case, he made himself into the host animal and bypassed the need for these antibodies, but he had to steadily build up his tolerance.
Throughout the 1950s, Haast was bitten 20 times by cobras and survived all of them, so his venom immunizations seemed to work. However, because he was only being injected with cobra venom, he was not immune to venom from other snake species.
When a common krait bit him in 1954, he assumed he’d be protected by his cobra immunizations and continued about his daily business after the bite. But, when the venom started affecting him, he was rushed to the hospital, where he spent several days recovering.
This experience made him realize that he needed immunizations from other species. So, over the next few decades, he started adding venom from other snake species until he was receiving a weekly dose of venom from 30 different species. This gave him a level of immunity so great that, when antivenins weren’t available to snakebite victims, he donated his blood to them. With the help of his venom-spiked blood, 20 of those snakebite victims recovered.
Over his lifespan, Haast was bitten 172 times and holds the record “for surviving the most deadly snakebites” in the Guinness Book of World Records. However, he didn’t wear this title as a badge of honor. For him, these bites were shameful and reflected errors in his judgement.
Now, with as many snakebites as Mr. Haast received, you might think that he did not live long and was not in good health. That was far from the case. Aside from suffering venom-induced tissue damage in his hands (which caused him to lose a finger in 2003 after a bite from a Malayan pit viper), he was in good health for a man whose veins basically coursed with snake venom.
During an interview in August 2008, he said, “Aging is hard. Sometimes, you feel useless. But I always felt I would live this long. It was intuitive. I always told people I’d live past 100, and I still feel I will. Is it the venom? I don’t know.” In December 2010, Haast turned 100, and on June 15, 2011, he passed away.
Without a doubt, this Florida man was both crazy and legendary. Not even the riskiest wildlife entertainers of today would ever attempt injecting themselves with snake venom to gain immunity to it, but that’s probably for the best.
Was Bill Haast’s success a one-off that couldn’t be replicated, or is it a roadmap for scientists to develop venom vaccines? Only time will tell. Until then, thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video, please like it and subscribe to Tidewater Teddy. Thanks and have a great day!