Page 1: Biography
Murdoch, Colin Albert
Inventor, pharmacist, entrepreneur, manufacturer
This biography, written by Gareth Phipps, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2021.
Colin Murdoch invented many devices that revolutionised the safety, convenience and cost-effectiveness of medical treatment for both humans and animals between the 1950s and 1980s. Murdoch regarded observation and imagination as the keys to innovation, and his inquisitive mind developed more than 40 new devices. His most influential design, the disposable syringe, subsequently saved millions of lives worldwide by preventing the spread of fatal diseases.
Colin Albert Murdoch was born in Christchurch on 6 February 1929, the second child of Mary Kathleen Broad and her husband, chemist Frank William James Murdoch. Colin attended St Andrew’s College in Christchurch from 1943 to 1946, where he was a curious and inquiring pupil despite struggling with dyslexia. He possessed a natural talent for chemistry and gradually developed technical and mechanical skills through experimentation. At 10 years old he made his own gunpowder by mixing nitrates and sulphuric acid, then built a muzzle loading pistol which he successfully fired. By 13 he was (illegally) driving his own car. In December 1943, when only 14, Murdoch swam out to rescue the drowning passenger of a yacht that had capsized in the Avon-Heathcote estuary. For this heroic act, he received the Royal Humane Society Bronze Medal.
After leaving school, Murdoch trained as a pharmacist, like his father, completing a pharmacy apprenticeship in Christchurch and studying at the College of Pharmacy in Wellington (1948–1953) before opening a pharmacy in Timaru in 1954. Three years later he met 24-year-old Marilyn Thelma Tregenza on a blind date. They were married in Timaru on 1 June 1957 and had four children between 1958 and 1962.
As a young man, Murdoch enjoyed hunting and worked as a private deer culler for a time. This was tough work and he had special affinity for the horses he rode and used to transport supplies and deer skins. He developed an interest in breeding horses and show ponies, which he entered in showing championships, winning several titles.
By the early 1950s Murdoch had turned his professional knowledge of medicine, and interest in technological innovation, to trying to resolve practical problems in the medical field. He was working on developing a new vaccinator for animals when inspiration struck on a flight between Auckland and Christchurch in 1952. When he took out a fountain pen to write something down, his attention was drawn to the cap of the pen. Removing the cap and exposing the tip triggered the idea for a needle and plunger and, ultimately, a pre-filled disposable syringe.
Murdoch realised his invention could have applications beyond animal welfare. Developed correctly, single-use syringes could also limit the transmission of human-borne disease. At the time, syringes were made of either steel or glass, which were expensive to make and risked cross-contamination through use on multiple patients. Speaking in 1993, Murdoch commented: ‘It is impossible to comprehend the catastrophic consequences of this situation if such practices were still occurring today.’1
Murdoch regarded a plastic disposable syringe as more cost-effective and safer. He patented his first design in 1956 and presented the concept to officials at the Department of Health, who rejected it on the grounds that no one would be interested in being injected by something made of plastic. This view was especially short-sighted given doctors administering antibiotics had already begun to notice that these medicines were producing a crystal by-product in glass syringes, making sterilisation difficult.
Undeterred, Murdoch set about making working prototypes. He taught himself plastics engineering, then designed and built moulding tools to produce his first disposable syringes. Having confirmed proof of concept, Murdoch patented and marketed his syringes internationally through Tasman Vaccine Laboratories (TVL), an Australian-owned company based in Upper Hutt.
Multinational drug companies picked up on the idea soon after Murdoch’s patents appeared in international gazettes. They could see the financial potential of disposable syringes, especially as the use of antibiotics increased. By the late 1970s, the United States alone was using an estimated 2.5 billion disposable syringes. Murdoch received no financial reward for his invention, as he lacked the resources to prevent large corporations stealing his intellectual property. He noted wryly: ‘Patents give you the right to sue, they don’t give you the money to sue.’2
In 1966, TVL hired him as a technical consultant to develop new technology for animal vaccines. He helped design several products, including the Vaxipak and Vaxigun, a fully automatic vaccination system which delivered at least 500 doses. When Murdoch’s contract was terminated in 1972 while he was overseas, his lawyer negotiated a final settlement with TVL, signing over Murdoch’s vaccinator patents for $2000. Over the next five years, TVL’s export earnings rose by 1500%, earning them the Governor General’s Export Award in 1975. Murdoch then consulted until 1978 for a New Zealand company, Merck, Sharp, and Dohme, where he developed an award-winning drench gun.
In 1959 Murdoch patented his first tranquilliser gun and syringe, the development of which stemmed from his involvement in a research project on Himalayan tahr in the Southern Alps. Seeing the need for safer and more humane ways of immobilising animals for examination, treatment, and identification, he used his knowledge of chemistry, veterinary science and hunting to design a syringe projectile fitted with a plastic dart tail. Fired from a modified pistol and rifle, it enabled animals to be easily sedated and treated without trauma.
To develop, manufacture and market his tranquilliser guns, Murdoch registered his own trademark, Paxarms, in 1961, eventually establishing two factories in Timaru under the same name. Paxarms began modifying surplus pistols and rifles purchased from the police and army, and developed a range of compatible syringe projectiles.
In 1966, Murdoch discovered that the American firearms manufacturer Smith and Wesson was promoting an almost identical collection of tranquilliser guns and syringes. He launched legal proceedings – the only court action he ever took – against them for breaching international patents and won. They stopped production immediately.
By the mid-1970s Paxarms was exporting to more than 150 countries. The guns, with interchangeable barrels to accommodate different doses, were used to tranquillise animals ranging in size from dogs to polar bears and elephants, transforming the scientific understanding of wild animals, as they could be safely studied, tagged or given veterinarian assistance and then released. Murdoch travelled the world assisting with the testing of the equipment on animals. He continued to refine the technology for his Paxarms tranquilliser products, designing several transmitter-dart systems and range-finder telescopic rifle sights.
Murdoch also worked with pharmaceutical companies to develop safer tranquilliser drugs for animals. He was particularly concerned about the fatal chemical imbalances these drugs could cause when combined with the large amounts of adrenalin released into the bloodstream in response to a perceived threat. He discovered the problem could be mitigated by administering an electrolyte solution after immobilisation, a practice subsequently adopted to prevent shock in human surgical patients.
Murdoch’s tranquilliser gun was used on a human for the first time in 1979, when a man took his wife hostage in Auckland. During the incident, Murdoch spoke with a member of the Armed Offenders Squad via telephone, instructing them which part of the offender to shoot and what velocity to set their weapon.
In 1966, Murdoch filed patents for a silent burglar alarm, electrical wiring system and heat detection cells. These elements were part of a silent burglar and fire alarm, designed by Murdoch to trigger an automatic phone call to emergency services. Although it never entered production – there were concerns about its impact on the electrical phone system – this type of alarm design is now commonplace. He developed more products for the veterinary field in 1972, designing a set of instruments to assist birth in domestic animals.
In 1976, Murdoch won four medals, three gold and a bronze, at the World Inventors Fair in Brussels. One of the awards was for a childproof bottle cap, the unique opening mechanism which required a combination of finger strength and coordination that young children did not possess. This lateral thinking and clever design were typical of Murdoch’s inventions. Further accolades followed from the New Zealand Industrial Design Council for his Paxarms products. He made an appearance on the television contestant show, Inventor, in 1976, winning the major prize for his childproof cap design.
Impact on family
During the 1970s Murdoch tested and promoted Paxarms products throughout Europe, Africa and the Pacific. As business opportunities multiplied, he spent more time away from home. His demanding travel schedule, together with a seemingly limitless appetite for work, inevitably affected his family life. Even when he was at home, Murdoch spent hours developing or refining new projects, often eating in his workshop rather than at the dinner table. This heavy workload was only possible because of the support of Marilyn, who maintained the daily routine at home with their four children. Murdoch tried to make up for it by taking the family on regular hunting, camping and fishing holidays.
By the late 1970s Murdoch was tiring of the long-haul travel required for his Paxarms business: ‘five and six world trips to numerous countries throughout the world each year, is not only extremely tiring but due to the constant rapid adjustments to extreme climatic differences, very hard on the body too’.3 Up to this point, he had lived a charmed existence, cheating death several times in the course of his work. Several flights he missed were either hijacked or had crashed and he just avoided being trampled to death in Africa when an elephant charged him.
When another company offered to purchase Paxarms in 1978, Murdoch saw an opportunity to ‘fully lighten [the] load and fully retire’.4 By this stage he had patented 46 devices, though he declined to pursue patent infractions due to both cost and the satisfaction of knowing that the original idea was his.
Murdoch looked for new projects to keep busy. A keen sailor and fisherman, he bought the semi-complete hull of a 45-foot yacht, Hauroko, and spent three years fitting it out ‘to help unwind’.5 Health issues surfaced in 1991. Cancer of the paranasal sinuses led to the removal of part of his jaw, the roof of his mouth, and right eye. Fitted with an oral device to help him eat and speak, Murdoch wore a distinctive dressing over his eye for the remainder of his life. Colin and Marilyn became involved in cancer awareness campaigns.
Recognition of his work came relatively late in life. In 1999, Time magazine listed Murdoch as one of the 100 most influential people in the South Pacific, and the following year he was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to inventing. In 2007 his tranquilliser gun featured in an issue of stamps celebrating New Zealand inventions.
Although he recovered from his first bout of cancer, he developed oesophageal cancer in 2005 and died in Timaru on 4 May 2008, aged 79. Obituaries published in New Zealand and internationally lauded his exploits, yet his achievements remained relatively unknown in his hometown.
Colin Murdoch invented some of the most influential products in modern medical and veterinary practice. He created ingenious solutions to seemingly impossible problems, drawing, in his words, on ‘equal parts knowledge, experience and lateral thinking’.6 These ideas and designs were transformed into practical inventions which helped improve the health and wellbeing of people all over the world.