Inventor Colin Murdoch was fêted as a “clever Kiwi” while he was still alive

Made in New Zealand: disposable syringes invented 55 years ago

Disposable syringes made of plastic are a standard feature of medical treatment nowadays. 16 billion of them, some of which already contain drugs (prefilled syringes), are used all over the world every year, 500 million of them in the USA alone. The disposable syringe was invented 55 years ago by Colin Murdoch from New Zealand

A hollow needle made of metal, a barrel and a plunger made of plastic – that is what the syringes we are all familiar with consist of. We are in fact so familiar with them that we tend to think they have always existed. It is, however, only 55 years since the plastic syringe was invented and replaced syringes made from glass and metal, the history of which goes back to the 17th century. (see Syringe history). What has in particular been forgotten is the person humanity has to thank for the invention. His name is Colin Albert Murdoch and he was a pharmacist and veterinarian, who was born a British citizen in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 6. February 1929 and spent the whole of his life on the South Island there. When he was only ten years old, the young Colin made gunpowder by mixing nitrates with sulphuric acid, built himself a firearm and used it hunt rabbits and hares. The fact that he suffered from dyslexia as a child did not apparently have any adverse impact on his talent for sciences like chemistry. He followed in his father’s footsteps when choosing a career: after studying at the College of Pharmacy in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and completing a five-year training period, he opened a pharmacy in Timaru at the age of 25. Once he had gone on to study veterinary medicine too, Murdoch later worked as a veterinarian as well.

In 1956, Murdoch tried to develop a method of vaccination that eliminated the risks of infection. The glass syringes used up to that time were designed for multiple use and were sterilised each time they were used in order to avoid the transmission of dangerous pathogens from animal to animal or from person to person. Doctors knew from experience, however, that infection still occurred in spite of careful sterilisation. It did not take long to localise the reason: crystalline antibiotic deposits on the inside walls of the syringes had made bacteria resistant. The only solution had to be the use of disposable syringes made from a less expensive material than glass – the idea for the plastic syringe had been found. Murdoch apparently realised this during a flight over New Zealand, although it is also reported that this moment of genius came to him while he was playing with a fountain pen.

Murdoch immediately presented his disposable syringe to the New Zealand Health Department, which said, however that the invention was “abstruse” and “too futuristic” and that there was no need for such syringes. The inventor did not allow himself to be discouraged, however: he obtained money to file a patent application the same year and subsequently made numerous improvements, which were then marketed globally by the Australian company Tasman Vaccine Ltd., e.g. a “prefilled syringe”, a syringe that fills itself when blood is taken (“self-filling syringe”) and a dart-like tranquilliser syringe (“syringe dart”). The latter is attributable to Murdoch’s passion for veterinary medicine; while he was studying the population of wild Himalayan goats (Tahrs) that had made their home in New Zealand, Murdoch had the idea that it would be much simpler to catch and examine the animals if they were already tranquillised from a long way away. He then developed what are known as “tranquilliser guns” in 1959. They are rifles and pistols with appropriate tranquilliser darts instead of bullets. They were marketed under the company name “Paxarms”, a paradoxical word formed from “pax” (= peace) and “arms”. By the way: this rifle was used in 1979 to incapacitate a man who had taken his wife as a hostage ...

Murdoch was an imaginative man, who ended up with a total of 46 patents – apart from the disposable syringe and the tranquilliser gun, they included a childproof bottle cap design and a silent burglar alarm. He was awarded three gold medals and one bronze medal at the World Inventions Fair in Brussels in 1976; the year before, Tasman Vaccine had already won the Governor General’s Export Award. “Time Magazine” chose Murdoch as one of the most important and influential people in the South Pacific in 1999. In 2000, he received the New Zealand “Order of Merit”. And the New Zealand postal company dedicated a stamp to him in 2007 as part of its “Clever Kiwis” series of five New Zealand inventors. There is a picture of a “tranquilliser gun” on this stamp.

Murdoch’s numerous inventions – which the press called his “brainchildren” – did not make Murdoch rich, however. He took no legal action when his patents were infringed by copies. “Patents give you the right to sue; they don’t give you the money to sue. It just costs too much”, he admitted in an interview. The main thing for him was that other people were helped by his ideas. “Father was a very modest man” says David Murdoch, one of the four children (three sons and one daughter) the inventor had with his wife Marilyn. The couple, who married in 1957, also had 13 grandchildren when they were older. Murdoch died of cancer at the age of 79 on 4. May 2008. The disease started in his paranasal sinuses and cost Murdoch one of his eyes; he was at least able to enjoy almost 17 more years of life after he received the initial diagnosis in 1991.