STEVE’S DEATH STILL HAUNTS ME
Irwin legacy inspires ocean hunt for new drugs
A TOXINOLOGIST who was advising Steve Irwin the day he was killed by a stingray is now championing the use of venom to fight disease.
James Cook University professor Jamie Seymour blamed himself for the death of the Crocodile Hunter and almost quit his career after Irwin died more than a decade ago.
“I felt like I failed Steve for years,” Prof Seymour said. “I didn’t keep him alive and I thought it was my fault.’’
A leading expert in his field, Prof Seymour was convinced to continue his role after talking to his children.
“I had been a mess for months,’’ he said. “Just constantly crying and I was ready to quit. I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more’. They said ‘Dad, it wasn’t your fault’. They knew how much I enjoyed the job.’’
He eventually returned to the forefront of venom research, helping to identify compounds that could be used for everything from chronic pain to cancer. One project involves stunning the human heart with box jellyfish toxin to lengthen transplant time between donors and recipients.
Prof Seymour said Irwin’s legacy in conservation also inspired him to plough on. “He changed the way I looked at things. What still resonates with me is that Steve was willing to portray himself as a real bogan just so people would watch and listen and he could put forward his theories.
“Forget David Attenborough and the rest ... nobody did it like Steve.’’
He said he was still haunted by memories of the day Irwin died but it had become easier to grapple with.
“It’s not something I will ever really get over — but I would be upset if I did,’’ he said.
In the ensuing years, he said, he’d been frustrated by the opinions of “armchair experts’’ who claimed Irwin should never have put himself in the situation in the first place.
“It was just an unfortunate set of circumstances that came together on that day,’’ Prof Seymour said.
“He was out there for the sake of the animals, to raise the profile of conservation efforts, not for himself.”
In the years that have followed, Prof Seymour said, Australians had become too risk-averse and should look to Irwin as an example.
“We need to put our big boy pants on,’’ he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to start playing with snakes and spiders. We need to rediscover a healthy respect for Australia’s animals. It goes back to what Steve was trying to do all along.’’
Through his work at James Cook University, Prof Seymour has studied everything from stonefish to cone snails. He said compounds from box jellyfish had already been found to positively affect arthritis in mice.
He will be a guest speaker at the Festival of Failure — a motivational event exploring the failures of some of the most successful Australians.
Toxinologist Jamie Seymour, who was with Steve Irwin the day he was killed by a stingray and now champions the use of venom to fight some of the world’s cruellest diseases. Picture: EUGENE HYLAND