Cure for motion sickness began at Hopkins

April 23, 1991|By Sheridan Warrick | Sheridan Warrick,Excerpted from In Health magazine

For a time in 1947, the Baltimore woman's life seemed just about unbearable. She was pregnant, which was trouble enough. But then her skin broke out with itchy, swollen red patches -- hives, she called it. Allergic "urticaria" in her doctor's words. She sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. A trip there, however, meant a trolley ride, and that meant even more punishment. All her life, any travel had brought on waves of motion sickness.

At Johns Hopkins, luck ran her way. The allergy clinic had just begun tests of a new antihistamine dubbed "Compound 1694." Allergist Leslie Gay signed her up and gave her her first pill on the spot. Her jouncy ride home that day astonished her: not a hint of nausea. In time, Gay too found himself marveling at the new drug, which by then had received a brand name.

"Unexpectedly, the car sickness was relieved as well as the urticaria," he wrote. "It was possible to control the car sickness of this patient at will. A placebo failed repeatedly, but the drug Dramamine gave her complete relief."

The allergist became a crusader. "Other victims of car sickness and airsickness sought among patients and friends were, without exception, completely freed of discomfort, provided the drug was taken just before exposure to the motion."

Gay knew he'd found a long-sought remedy, but he moved to be perfectly sure. On Nov. 27, 1948, with nods from the Army chief of staff and surgeon general -- and with the involuntary cooperation of 1,366 soldiers bound for duty in Germany -- Gay launched "Operation Seasickness." The ship selected was the General Ballou, a slim, high-riding troop transport.

"Seasickness was to be expected," Gay wrote, "especially on a vessel noted for its roll and pitch in a calm sea." And on the North Atlantic in midwinter, he said, "Satisfactorily rough weather was anticipated." They got it.

"Weather conditions were moderately rough for the first five days and violently rough for the remaining five days with a heavy roll of the vessel from 22 degrees to as high as 35 degrees." Scores soldiers succumbed.

"Within 12 hours after the General Ballou left New York harbor, the corridors of compartments were congested by sick men, so ill that they were unable to reach the latrines. The men who reached these areas were unable to return to their compartments and remained stretched out in semi-conscious condition on the floors until more seaworthy individuals managed to drag them to sick bay or back to their hammocks. The latrines became temporarily indescribably repulsive."

But Gay got his proof. During the 10 days at sea, exactly 389 soldiers received the drug. No fewer than 372 obtained "complete relief." As with the Baltimore woman, Gay found, he could turn the malady on and off at will. Today, Dramamine remains the most widely used remedy for motion sickness.

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