2008-05-14 04:47:02 UTC
May 14, 2008
Pharmacist and vet who invented the disposable syringe, the
animal tranquillising dart and the silent burglar alarm
The disposable syringe, the silent burglar alarm, the
childproof medical bottle and the animal tranquilliser
dart - all were invented by Colin Murdoch. His inventions
have had a beneficial impact on the lives of millions of
people, though did little to enrich Murdoch himself. He held
more than 40 patents, spinning off ideas in every direction
from his training as a pharmacist and veterinary surgeon.
Colin Albert Murdoch was born in 1929 in Christchurch, New
Zealand, to Frank Murdoch, a pharmacist, and his wife, Mary.
Dyslexic, he largely struggled at school but he excelled at
drawing and chemistry. To the alarm of his parents, he was
making gunpowder before he reached double figures, and at
the age of 10 he scared them further by creating the acid
ignition muzzle-loading gun. The gun, which worked with a
wick and hammer, was based on Murdoch's observation that
certain nitrates will cause an ignition when mixed with
sulphuric acid. Murdoch, who went on to study firearms all
his life, said that he never saw another operate on the same
Brought up in rural South Canterbury, Murdoch, aged 13,
owned and drove, illegally,a Morris Oxford Tourer. After
school he studied at the College of Pharmacy in Wellington.
Following his father he went on to do a five-year
apprenticeship to become a pharmacist. As well as his
concern for people (in his early teens he was awarded the
Royal Humane Society Medal for saving a drowning man),
Murdoch had an interest in the welfare of animals that in
part stemmed from his bucolic upbringing.
His most important invention, the disposable syringe, was a
result of his twin vocations - he wanted to make a more
efficient vaccinator for animals and was also very conscious
of the risks of passing infections from one patient to the
next (whether human or animal) when using the same syringe.
Disposable glass syringes were being developed at the end of
the 1940s, spurred in the US by a drive to immunise children
against polio. Drugs companies, concerned by the possibility
of litigation surrounding infections passed on by their
products, were looking into other options.
Murdoch invented his plastic syringe in 1956, a
now-ubiquitous design of which millions are used every day.
At first it met resistance, however, with the New Zealand
Department of Health expressing the view that it was
unnecessary and that it would be spurned by the public for
being too futuristic. This short-sightedness failed to
account not only for the difficulties in effectively
sterilising glass syringes but also for the sharp increase
in the use of injected drugs that took place in the 1950s.
Murdoch was 26 when he received his first patent for the
syringe in 1956 and over the next 15 years he invented
numerous variations - such as variable-dose syringes,
self-filling syringes and syringe darts - which were all
significantly different and all breakthroughs in
Another of Murdoch's breakthrough inventions was the
tranquilliser gun. He was working with colleagues studying
wild goat and antelope populations in New Zealand when it
occurred to him that the animals would be far easier to
catch if they could be sedated from afar. In 1959 he
received a patent for the automatic syringe projectile, an
invention that greatly reduced the stress experienced by
captured animals. He refined the idea by developing a
syringe pistol with a valve that allowed the shooter to
control the velocity of the dart. In 1979 the gun was used
on a human being when a man in Auckland took his wife
hostage. Talking to a police marksman by telephone, Murdoch
could tell him where to shoot the hostage-taker and at what
setting to have the gun's velocity.
Murdoch's developments in the field of animal
tranquillisation went farther than mere delivery. In the
1950s, when he was developing his guns, the only
tranquilliser drugs available were curare - a dart poison
developed from recipes by Native Indians in South America -
and nicotine alkaloids, all of which caused fatal reactions
in a high proportion of the animals subjected. Murdoch
worked with leading drugs companies to help to develop more
sophisticated drugs with more predictable reactions. He also
noted that the huge surge in adrenalin experienced by
animals that feel threatened - which can result in shock and
death - could be made manageable by administering an
electrolyte solution immediately after immobilisation. This
has saved the lives of millions of human accident victims,
as it is now routine practice to give such a solution to the
young and elderly to prevent shock during surgery.
In 1966 Murdoch invented the silent burglar alarm, which
worked by triggering a phone call to the police if an
intruder was detected. He also received a patent for an
automatic fire detector that, on the same principle, alerted
the fire brigade when heat sensors were activated. Plans for
production never went ahead (Murdoch was told by the
authorities that the device would interfere unacceptably
with the phone system), although the device has been taken
A decade (and 17 patents) later, at the 1976 World Inventors
Fair in Brussels, he won a gold medal for his patented
child-proof medicine bottle. He won two more gold medals for
other inventions at the fair, as well a bronze.
Murdoch attributed most of his ideas to his sleeping hours.
He would awake in the night from dreams of objects spinning
before him in three dimensions and go to his kitchen table
to capture them with pencil and paper before their memory
While Murdoch owned the patents for a great many products
which resulted from these reveries, he failed to become
significantly rich, although he headed Paxarms, a successful
company developing, making and selling tranquilliser guns.
"Patents give you the right to sue, they don't give you the
money to sue," he once told a New Zealand newspaper, but he
also later said that patent lawyers would frequently inform
him that patents of his were being broken but that he
declined to take action, satisfied simply knowing that the
original idea was his.
In 1999 Time magazine named him one of the top 100 Most
Influential People of the South Pacific, but he largely
Colin Murdoch, pharmacist, veterinarian and inventor, was
born on February 6, 1929. He died of cancer on May 4, aged