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Worrell, Eric Arthur Frederic (1924–1987)

by Kevin Markwell and Nancy Cushing

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Eric Arthur Frederic Worrell (1924-1987), naturalist and herpetologist, was born on 27 October 1924 at Granville, Sydney, elder child of New South Wales-born parents Charles Percy Frederic Worrell, salesman, and his wife Rita Mary Ann, née Rochester. Eric was educated at Glenmore Road Public and Sydney Boys’ High schools. Developing a strong interest in wildlife, by the age of 10 he kept reptiles and other animals in the backyard of the family home at Paddington and later Lilyfield. His parents supported his unusual interest by taking him periodically to see George Cann, the ‘Snake Man of La Perouse’. Cann became a friend and mentor to Worrell and the pair later travelled extensively, collecting snakes and other reptiles.

After he left school at 13 Worrell spent several years in work gangs in regional New South Wales. In 1942 he joined the Civil Constructional Corps, with which he served for the rest of World War II, stationed first in Darwin and then at Katherine, as a blacksmith. Worrell established a friendship with the poet Roland Robinson and, along with others, the pair spent weekends observing reptiles and other wildlife. They returned to the Northern Territory in 1946. Worrell financed himself by writing magazine articles on aspects of the natural history and way of life of the Territory, as well as collecting specimens for zoos and museums both within Australia and overseas.

Worrell returned to Sydney in 1947 and married Rene Carol Hawkins, a shop assistant, on 31 July 1948 at Ocean Beach Presbyterian Church, Umina, on the New South Wales Central Coast. In 1950 he established Ocean Beach Aquarium there, which provided a base for his research on reptiles, particularly snakes. The next year he became the chief supplier of snake venom for the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne. Initially the venom was only from tiger snakes but from 1952 came from taipans also. The development of taipan antivenom in 1955 was in no small part due to Worrell’s skill and bravery in collecting and milking taipans, a snake whose bite meant almost certain death prior to the availability of antivenom.

Keen to create a reptile research institute, Worrell purchased land at Wyoming, North Gosford, and in 1958 established the Australian Reptile Park, which opened to the public in October 1959. The park’s official status as a ‘B’ class zoo allowed him to import a variety of exotic species including king cobras, mambas, alligators and rattlesnakes. He also brought in animals from the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in the early 1960s, including species of tree kangaroo and cuscus that had not previously been kept in captivity. The first Australian park to exhibit nocturnal animals in a purpose built ‘noctarium’, the Reptile Park became a major tourist attraction and Worrell maintained and expanded his venom-production activities, supplying venom from Australian and foreign snakes and the Sydney funnel-web spider. The Gosford dinosaur, constructed in 1963 and placed at the park entrance, was the first roadside tourist icon in Australia. It contributed to the image of the Central Coast as a holiday destination.

Worrell educated Australians about the value of all wildlife, including reptiles, and the need to conserve species and habitats. In 1950-75 he published eleven books, including Dangerous Snakes of Australia (1952), the partially autobiographical Song of the Snake (1958), Australian Wildlife (1966), The Great Barrier Reef (1966) and Trees of the Australian Bush (with Lois Sourry, 1967), and more than eighty articles for popular magazines, some written under pseudonyms such as Karliboodi, Sap Engro and Belvedere. Worrell also contributed to reptile taxonomy and systematics through technical papers and through his book, Reptiles of Australia (1963), the first publication to deal comprehensively with the Australian reptile fauna. In addition to appearing on television, he made a large number of short films. His friends included the naturalist Vincent Serventy, zoologist Jock Marshall, photographer Jeff Carter and artist (Sir) Russell Drysdale, whose sketch of Worrell, ‘The Snake Man’ (1964), is held by the National Gallery of Australia.

Divorced in 1971, Worrell married with Presbyterian forms Robyn Beverley Innes, his secretary at the Reptile Park, on 16 June 1973 on board the Coralita at Kepple Bay, Queensland. He had been appointed MBE in 1970 and in 1981 with Robyn received the National Australia Bank’s humanitarian award for their long-term involvement in the development of antivenom for the Sydney funnel-web spider. They divorced in 1985. Suffering from health and financial problems, Worrell tried to sell the park. In 1986, with the financial help of a local businessman, Ed Manners, and the entertainer Bobby Limb, the park was kept open; Eric and Robyn were both directors of the new company. Survived by the three children of his first marriage, Worrell died of myocardial infarction between 12 and 13 July 1987 at his home in the Reptile Park and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Markwell and N. Cushing, Snake-bitten (2010)
  • Toxicon, vol 48, 2006, p 899
  • N. Cushing and K. Markwell, ‘Balancing Biography and Institutional History: Eric Worrell’s Australian Reptile Park’, Public History Review, vol 19, 2009, p 78
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1987, p 2
  • MJA, 1 Feb 1988, p 15.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kevin Markwell and Nancy Cushing, 'Worrell, Eric Arthur Frederic (1924–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/worrell-eric-arthur-frederic-15631/text26832, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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