Grace Olive Wiley, noted entomologist, more famous the Snake Lady
June 11, 2020 10:42 PM   Subscribe

For the first 30 years of her life, Grace Olive Wiley was deathly afraid of snakes—a strange trait for someone who would come to be known as the most celebrated snake woman of her time. As a child and young adult, she would blanch in horror at even the most harmless varieties. But the story goes that one day in the early 1920s, while working at the Minneapolis Museum of Natural History, a rattlesnake slithered across her hand as she was talking to a visitor. When the reptile didn't strike, she thought that perhaps all snakes could be tamed, and decided she wanted to know how. The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of Snake Handler Grace Olive Wiley (Mental Floss)

The Tri-Trophic Thematic Collection Network (focusing on collaborative research between and on plants, herbivores, and parasitoids) has a biography on Wiley, describing her studies in entomology at the University of Kansas at a time when women struggled to gain acceptance in scientific fields, which lead to her role as curator of the Minneapolis Public Library’s natural history museum. Although it is now defunct, this position made her one of the first female zoo curators in the world.

It was there that she started studying, and breeding, snakes. She was the first person to successfully breed rattlesnakes in captivity, and believed that snakes could be tamed with patience and gentle acclimation to touch. As she described in the article "Taming King Cobras" (Internet Archive copy of Natural History, 1937)
Much may be accomplished with snakes without making pets of them, as the writer has done. The padded stick is the greatest asset, along with quiet, deliberate movements. Snakes are very intelligent and "catch on" much sooner than we do, to indications of sympathy — that is, they are not, as a rule, afraid to trust you first. They believe you are friendly, before you are convinced that they have no desire to bite.
But her unorthodox methods caused friction within the museum's administrators, who told her to stop handling the snakes (which were her collection), or leave. So she went, taking her snakes and reptiles, and joined the Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago, which featured these animals in more natural settings, instead of the usual wire cages of the period. But as described in the TCN biography, "Wiley’s habits of leaving the reptiles’ cases open caused problems between herself and the Director. She was fired after 19 venomous snakes escaped."

And so in 1937, Wiley and her mother, Mary Gough, moved to Long Beach to set up a roadside zoo made up mostly of her reptiles. According to a 1976 article in Los Fierros de los Cerritos, the women arrived with snakes, lizards, tarantulas and a two-headed turtle (Long Beach Press-Telegram). While in California, Grace served as a snake handler on a few films (IMDb), bringing her own snakes. The Press-Telegram article also details her passing:
On July 20, 1948, journalist Daniel P. Mannix was at her home to photograph her collection as part of a story. A newly acquired Indian cobra she was posing with bit Wiley when it was startled by the flash from the photographer’s camera. When she went to get her snakebite kit, one vial of cobra anti-venom had evaporated and the other was broken, and the Long Beach Hospital only had anti-venom serums for North American snakes. She was pronounced dead less than two hours after being bitten.
In 2002, Long Beach named Grace Park in part in tribute to Ms. Wiley, who had lived in the vicinity of the park.
posted by filthy light thief (9 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I remember as a kid reading in a first hand account of her death that was written by Mannix.

I'm at a loss for some of the details, but I remember being struck by how ordinary and matter-of-fact the snakebite was. It just happened. She was a calm, cool, and collected professional who knew what she was doing, had done it a million times before, and still the snake bit her anyway.

I think a big part of my risk aversion comes from having read that account.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:11 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


So Mannix's first-hand account is titled "Woman Without Fear" and I still find it to be very jarring.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:23 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


When she went to get her snakebite kit, one vial of cobra anti-venom had evaporated and the other was broken

If that doesn't encourage us to frequently check and maintain our emergency equipment/first aid kits, I don't know what possibly could. It was one in a long line of unnecessary deaths that happened because humans are really bad at remembering tasks that are infrequent and are (usually) of no immediate consequence. A bit of preventative maintenance would have gone a long way. :(
posted by wierdo at 7:58 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


I think the emergency/first aid kit is a bit of a red herring. According to Mannix, they both knew it probably wouldn't have saved her anyway:
Then Grace turned to me. Suddenly she said, "He didn't really bite me, did he?" It was the only emotion I saw her show. I could only say "Grace, where's your snake-bite kit?" We both knew that only immediate amputation of her arm could save her, but everything was worth a chance.

She pointed to a cabinet. There was a tremendous collection of the surgical aids used for snake bite, but I don't believe any of it had been touched for twenty years. I pulled out a rubber tourniquet and tried to twist it around her finger. The old rubber snapped in my hands. Grace didn't seem to notice
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:54 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of a surprising remark made by an entomologist which I ran across in random natural history readings a long time ago: 'all entomologists are afraid of snakes, and all herpetologists are afraid of spiders.'
posted by jamjam at 11:03 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of a surprising remark made by an entomologist which I ran across in random natural history readings a long time ago: 'all entomologists are afraid of snakes, and all herpetologists are afraid of spiders.'

I am an arachnophobe who thinks snakes are completely charming (with due respect, of course). my personal philosophy is there are two teams: 1) too many legs 2) no legs. I am team #nolegs.

this is a fascinating story. I cannot imagine going from me to spider enthusiast. its very sad that what she love killed her but she got very cozy with very dangerous animals. not unlikely Grizzly Man.
posted by supermedusa at 11:21 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Perhaps I'm reading into what she said, but I'm not fond of the implication that snakes somehow have human-like emotions to be gentled. However, I'm sure that not acting like a threat keeps reactivity down amongst most species. And I'm willing to bet that Wiley's bite incidence was far lower than average for most herpetologists who deal with deadly reptiles, over decades of handling snakes.

And just from the description of the way she met her death, it sounds like she was inured to the idea that it could happen, part of the cost of doing business. I can think of far worse ways to go.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:39 AM on June 12


Just to clarify, I intended my earlier comment not to blame her, but to lament that humans are really bad at assessing low frequency, high consequence risks pretty much universally. Houses burn down because the fire extinguisher doesn't work or isn't there. People lose eyes because eye wash stations are broken, etc. People bleed out because the first aid kit was depleted without being replenished. It's part of the human condition, not a failing of any given individual.
posted by wierdo at 3:31 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]


However, I'm sure that not acting like a threat keeps reactivity down amongst most species.

I wouldn't be surprised if no human knows how not to act like a threat! That would be very good wilderness survival information.

As far as a cobra might go? If not "acting" like a threat is just being chill, well, this is for an animal that strikes out of the blue! And who protects itself against predators who probably also succeed by the element of surprise! This probably goes with a lot of dangerous animals who's preferred company is "nobody." They have noses that smell heat or whatever, so you're either embers or a danger to them. At least, that's the attitude I'd greet them with.
posted by rhizome at 3:46 PM on June 15


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