Since the days when he swung from tree to tree, man has worked on the problem of improving his methods of travel. Today he travels faster and farther than ever; this often makes him happy, sometimes makes him money and frequently makes him useful. It also makes him sick. Nausea causes millions of travelers to long for a return to the reassuring ground, if not the tree. Technically known as motion sickness, this complaint classically afflicts seafarers but can also cause un-happiness on a toboggan, a golf buggy, a roller coaster or a walking horse.
NOBODY IS IMMUNE
The seaborne version must have been known at the time Noah shoved off in his ark bound for Mount Ararat. Its annoying, sometimes prostrating discomforts restrict many passengers to their cabins throughout the entire voyage of huge ocean liners; it also keeps hordes of weekend yachtsmen glued to the rail. Motion sickness was recorded by early explorers swaying along on the backs of camels as they lurched through the desert sands; today it strikes children galloping up and down on the merry-go-round. Even a smooth flight aboard a four-engine transport often requires the soothing ministrations of the stewardess. Family outings grind to a halt while the car pulls off the road to allow Junior time to quiet his turbulent stomach. Nobody is immune to motion sickness if the motion is rough enough.
A dull pallor (the sort that used to be called pool-hall) is often the first external sign of oncoming motion sickness. Then the skin may grow cold and clammy, the mouth sticky. Drowsiness seizes the body but the sweet ease of sleep is denied by the growing restlessness of the stomach. The queasy march toward actual vomiting has begun.
Until World War II motion sickness was more or less accepted as a necessary evil of the advances of transportation. But when 250,000 sailors spent an average of eight days apiece in sick bay with motion sickness; when troops who circled an island in assault boats for hours before the attack were found to be virtually useless when they reached the beaches; when airmen arriving over a target after five or six hours of flying were hampered by dizziness and heaving stomachs, the armed forces initiated an all-out attack on this enemy agent. Fortunately a good deal was already known, even though not much had been done.
For example, it had been firmly established that balance in the human body is largely maintained by the inner ear, a pretzel-shaped bony labyrinth about the size of a small key. This built-in human gyroscope becomes irritated when subjected to four kinds of motion—scend, yaw, roll and pitch. Scend is a rising and falling such as might be experienced on an airplane in bumpy weather. Yaw is that sickening pendulumlike swing which a quartering wind produces in a boat. Roll, the least distressing motion, is side-to-side rocking such as a fast train develops. Pitch, the most troublesome of the motions, is a rocking back and forth in the line of travel, like that produced on a ship heaving into the waves. These movements may be combined but any one of them is sufficient to disturb the inner ear. This organ communicates its displeasure to other parts of the body including the epigastrium or pit of the stomach, where the complaint is painfully localized.
The World War II studies acknowledged that other elements such as vision contribute to the sense of equilibrium but they also confirmed the basic rule of the inner ear. It was found that people suffering from inner ear defects or deafness proved immune to motion sickness. The survey revealed that although one could build up a certain amount of adjustment to motion sickness by continued flying or sea duty, any prolonged stay on land wiped out this adjustment. Psychological factors were ruled out. The person who gets sick as soon as he boards a ship is not a victim of a phobia; he is so sensitive that he reacts even to the slight motion of a boat tied up at a pier.
A number of old sailors' remedies—raw pork, horseradish soup, red herrings, breathing in when the ship rises and exhaling when it falls, or vice versa—were found to be without value.
A HAPPY ACCIDENT
The armed forces tried a number of pills and powders, some of which helped but none of which worked for everybody. After the war ended, research seemed to have reached a dead end. No new drugs showed much promise and the urgency of solving the problem subsided with the last shots. The would-be traveler was still on his own.