1949 Fifty Years Ago

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On February 14 Drs. Leslie H. Gay and Paul Carliner, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, announced a cure for something that had plagued mankind since the very beginnings of civilization: seasickness. Like many momentous medical advances, their discovery had come about by accident. The doctors had been testing an experimental antihistamine prepared by G. D. Searle & Company on a woman suffering from hives. The patient was also prone to motion sickness, but she noticed that she never got sick on the streetcar ride home from their office if she took a dose of the antihistamine first. Intrigued, Gay and Carliner arranged to test the drug on soldiers traveling to Germany on a troopship.

The General C. C. Ballou , originally a freighter, was known to be highly unstable. Nevertheless, during a rough autumn crossing only 2 percent of those given the experimental drug in advance became seasick, compared with 25 percent of those given a placebo. Among soldiers not treated ahead of time, the drug was better than 90 percent effective in curing seasickness within half an hour after its onset. Although the generic name of the soldiers’ savior is dimenhydrinate, it has become universally known by its trademark, Dramamine.

Many people still feel ill during a rough journey by sea, land, or air, but such queasiness is nothing compared with an old-fashioned case of true seasickness. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica , “At first the contents of the stomach only are ejected; but thereafter bilious matter, and occasionally even blood, are brought up by the violence of the retching…. With the sickness there is great physical prostration, as shown in the pallor of the skin, cold sweats and feeble pulse, accompanied with mental depression and wretchedness.” The dedicated sea traveler John Malcolm Brinnin called it “the only and ultimate sickness: the one living death of faculty and will.” The best thing that medical texts could say about seasickness was that it was rarely fatal, though to someone in the throes of a violent attack, this could seem more a curse than a blessing.

Before Dramamine, cures for seasickness had been just as numerous as those for hiccups, and just as effective. They ranged from the commonplace (ice, bicarbonate of soda, Worcestershire sauce, aspirin, seawater, dry toast, thin gruel, strong coffee) to the narcotic (morphine, cocaine, opium) to the downright poisonous (hydrocyanic acid, belladonna). Champagne was said to counteract the urge to vomit, and brandy, crème de menthe, and other cordials supposedly reduced anxiety. The ancient Roman poet Horace called for swallowing large cups of dry wine. Folk preventatives included chewing a piece of fatty pork, lying down and warming the feet, breathing into a bag, stuffing the ears with cotton, and gluing a piece of brown paper to the chest.

Another school of thought held that seasickness was mental in origin and could be overcome by willpower. One writer asserted that “thinkers, brain workers, women, nervous and fearful types, and Latins” were especially vulnerable, while the very young and old, “phlegmatic Anglo-Saxons,” courageous people, and newly acquainted lovers were said to be nearly immune. In fact seasickness has always been one of history’s great levelers. Not only was Gen. Douglas MacArthur susceptible (as readers of last November’s “My Brush With History” column will recall); Adm. Horatio Nelson and Julius Caesar were also famous sufferers.

Shortly after results of the General Ballou test were announced, one newspaper quoted a naval veteran who sneered, “Any drug that will keep an Army man from getting sick at sea is the marvel of the ages.” When pressed, however, he admitted that sailors were not immune either. The old salt told of one young, determined Navy recruit who had kept watch with a bucket at his side during the recent war. Through the ravages of seasickness he doggedly stayed at his post, though every now and then he would give in to despair. The veteran remembered once when a German bomb whizzed over the top of the ship and the youngster’s voice could be heard clearly from the bridge: “Missed us again, dammit!”