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Barnes, John Handyside (Jack) (1922–1985)

by Joe Baker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

John Handyside (Jack) Barnes (1922-1985), medical practitioner and toxinologist, was born on 2 April 1922 at Charleville, Queensland, younger child of Queensland-born Henry Edward Barnes, chemist, and his wife Vera Adeline, née East, who came from New South Wales. The family lived on a sheep station, Dungiven, about 100 miles (160 km) west of Charleville, and Jack was a pupil of the Queensland Correspondence Primary School. He became an expert horseman and an accomplished rifle-shooter. After boarding at Brisbane Grammar School for four years, he enrolled in 1940 as a medical student at the University of Queensland (MB, BS, 1946).

On 22 December 1941 Barnes interrupted his studies to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 4th (2/4th) Independent Company, he served on Timor from September 1942 to January 1943. He suffered malnutrition, malaria and other infectious diseases, and returned to Australia weighing only 4 st. 6 lb. (28 kg). After recovering in hospital, he was discharged from the army on 24 April 1943 to resume his university course. On 23 May 1945 at Ann Street Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, he married Laloma Mavis Hudson, a physiotherapy student. He graduated next year and gained experience as a resident medical officer at Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane. In July 1947 he was appointed medical superintendent of Thursday Island Hospital. Despite a heavy workload, he was able to pursue his interests in boating, fishing and vegetable-growing. In January 1953 he and his family moved to Cairns, where he set up in general practice.

Barnes was intrigued by Hugo Flecker’s research into Chironex fleckeri Southcott, a box jellyfish that caused potentially fatal stings to people swimming off North Queensland beaches, and in 1958 agreed to a request from the local branch of the British Medical Association to investigate further. An innovative and incisive naturalist, he first sought to identify the different species of marine stingers found in the region. He focused his search on a small box jellyfish, associated with symptoms called `irukandji syndrome’—headache, vomiting and joint pains—occurring about twenty-five minutes after a trivial sting hardly noticed by the victim. In 1961 he eventually collected a specimen of this transparent jellyfish—the size of a finger nail—using an apparatus which incorporated a `flour sifter and a rat trap’. To check the symptoms, he tested the venom on himself, his 9-year-old son Nick, and a young volunteer surf lifesaver, all of whom reported the delayed but excruciating pain. His collaborator, R. V. Southcott, named the organism, which was new to science, Carukia barnesi. Barnes was appointed MBE in 1970.

In research into C. fleckeri, Barnes tried to determine the composition of its venom and how it was discharged, hoping that an antidote could be found. Discovering that the jellyfish would not discharge its venom against a synthetic surface, he donned pantihose when collecting specimens. This practice proved effective in preventing stings and was later adopted and adapted by surf lifesavers. Barnes mobilised a chain of medical practitioners and lifesavers from Mackay to Cape Tribulation to educate bathers about symptoms of envenomation, and to inform him when stingings occurred.

A close friend, Dr Graham Cossins, judged that Barnes was `irritable and belligerent, … demanding and critical, unsociable and rude’ but that `under that gruff exterior was a kindly and compassionate associate’. Survived by his wife, their two sons and one of their three daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 11 August 1985 at Cairns, and was buried with Anglican rites in Martyn Street cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Kinsey, Barnes on Box Jellyfish (1986), More Barnes on Box Jellyfish (1988)
  • J. Pearn (ed), Pioneer Medicine in Australia (1988)
  • G. E. Lambert (compiler), Commando: From Tidal River to Tarakan (1994)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 17 Mar 1986, p 327
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan 1962, p 2, 11 Jan 2003, `Good Weekend’, p 14
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

Joe Baker, 'Barnes, John Handyside (Jack) (1922–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barnes-john-handyside-jack-12177/text21823, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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