The world, differently

Colin Murdoch was a true Kiwi hero: the inventor of the disposable syringe, childproof cap and the tranquilliser gun. Like many inventors, he never got the fame and reward he deserved—but he has the undying admiration of Ray Avery
Magazine layout

Colin Murdoch was a true Kiwi hero: the inventor of the disposable syringe, childproof cap and the tranquilliser gun. Like many inventors, he never got the fame and reward he deserved—but he has the lasting admiration of

Colin Murdoch

Colin Murdoch, 1929-2008

My dear friend and personal hero, Colin Murdoch, died on May 4. He passed away much as he had lived—quietly and unnoticed. His demise was largely unnoted by the international media.

Yet few of us in the modern world have not benefited from the product of Colin’s extraordinary inquisitive and innovative mind. During a career spanning 50 years, Colin, a Timaru chemist, patented over 40 inventions and revolutionised medical and veterinary science.

His most famous world-changing invention for the wellbeing of mankind was the disposable plastic syringe. It’s hard to overstate its importance. Without the introduction of the disposable syringe, diseases like Aids would arguably have become so widespread that the survival of humankind may have been threatened.

When I visit remote hospitals in the Himalayas or in sub-Saharan Africa and see these life-saving syringes at work, I smile and think of Colin. As a scientist and inventor I’m inspired by the notion that one man can change the world for the better. From our early vaccinations to palliative care at the end of our lives, Colin has touched us all with his magic.

To be an inventor takes great vision, courage and tenacity, and is often a solitary pursuit, working late into the night in a garden shed or basement garage. If you are lucky enough the fortieth iteration of your prototype invention will work, and then you have a new set of challenges: you’ll need to secure funding for commercialisation and quickly become an expert in patent applications.

At each stage of the process sceptics will tell you “it can’t be done”.

When Colin first demonstrated his disposable syringe to the New Zealand Department of Health, officials declared it to be “too futuristic” and decided it would not be received well by doctors or patients. Colin persevered, scraping together the funding to further develop and patent his syringe, and after a decade or so his plastic disposable syringes found global acceptance. Today, millions of disposable syringes are used throughout the world every day.

Colin never received the recognition he deserved for his contribution to global healthcare—but that goes with the territory of being a modern-day inventor. Generally—with the exception of the discovery of dynamite—the nature of the inventing process is protracted, and the commercialisation and end-user acceptance of the product may occur over so many years that nobody recalls its introduction. Most inventors are never idolised by the general population, but in my book they are the greatest heroes of all.

The best dream beyond anyone else’s imagination. They change our world with new technologies and propel humankind forward, whether by the introduction of the wheel or the Internet.

Despite the ubiquity of his creations, Colin did not become rich. He deliberately chose not to sue companies that violated his patents, satisfied instead that the inventions were being put to good use.

New Zealand has more than its share of innovative scientists and inventors. As Ernest Rutherford famously remarked, “We don’t have any money so we have to think.” Colin Murdoch epitomised the Kiwi innovator—a self-taught engineer working at the kitchen table at night. He was an inventor’s inventor.

When I last met Colin I asked him what makes a good inventor. He shuffled in his chair and rubbed the one good eye not taken by cancer, and in his typical laconic style replied:

“Someone who sees the world differently.”

Perhaps this is why Colin at the age of ten had built his first firearm, and at the ripe old age of 13 used to blast around the wide-open spaces of Canterbury in his Morris Tourer.

Colin believed he could do anything and Colin Murdoch, 1929–2008, did. He changed the world.

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).