Pink Pills for Green Gills

Here is the story behind the Canadian Navy’s discovery of a secret remedy for seasickness

E. BAKER REID January 1 1944

Pink Pills for Green Gills

Here is the story behind the Canadian Navy’s discovery of a secret remedy for seasickness

E. BAKER REID January 1 1944

Pink Pills for Green Gills

Here is the story behind the Canadian Navy’s discovery of a secret remedy for seasickness



IT WAS early autumn, 1940, and across a desk in the Ottawa headquarters of the Royal Canadian Navy two men faced each other.

One of them, stocky and slightly stooped, was Sir Frederick Banting, who, with Dr. C. H. Best, had brought insulin into the world. The other, short, rotund and with a merry gleam in his blue eyes, was Surgeon Captain Archie McCallum, O.B.E., medical director general of the Royal Canadian Navy.

“I ve just learned something,” Sir Frederick told Surgeon Captain McCallum. “I’ve learned that dogs get seasick.”

McCallum agreed they did. It was common knowledge to Navy men, for ever since seamen have been taking dogs to sea the animals have been getting seasick about as often as humans.

Don t you see what it means?” continued Sir Irederick. “It means we can do something about finding the cause of seasickness. I can visualize a machine on which we can swing a dog, making it seasick. We can examine its blood before and after seasickness. It will give us a jumping-off place for further study.”

Today, as a result of the research which has been carried on since that time, the Navy’s medical ip®»earch unit has produced a little pink pill which is a sure preventive in three out of four cases of seasickness.

The Navy’s little pink pill isn’t something you can buy at your neighborhood drugstore, nor is it a pill your family doctor can prescribe when you have the miseries. This new pink pill is strictly armed services —secret during the period of the war. But when peace comes it will be a boon to world travellers who spend 90% of their transocean trips looking at the cabin ceiling and the remainder rushing from deck chair to rail.

It may be of benefit in cases of car and train sickness, too.

It is a pink pill which is a new weapon against Hitler, for it is estimated that 40% of even tough naval ratings spend two days of every rough, seagoing trip below while their systems set up an immunity to the pitch and roll of the ship. Three out of four who used to blanch and squirm at the first hint of a storm can now secure a great deal of relief.

Its use goes even farther than that in wartime. It is officially known there were cases of certain Commando operations which were actually at the landing point but had to turn back because a large percentage of the troops was seasick. This wouldn’t have happened, nor would have so many of the assault troops going to Sicily been seasick, if this little pink pill had been available. They’d have been given a pill before embarkation, and for eight hours at least—the average period of the pill’s effectiveness —the large majority would have made that rough

crossing comfortably and wouldn’t have been seasick.

The formula is still secret, for the Navy’s medical scientists—and the outstanding civilian doctors who worked with them—spent too many long, weary hours seeking the remedy to have it handed over to the Axis for the benefit of Hitler’s sea-borne troops, his sailors and his airmen. Too many Canadian naval personnel had to make too many trips in swings and other contrivances—giving them a man-made sickness equal to anything the sea could produce—to have the remedy turned over to help the crossings of seasuffering Nazis.

Sir Frederick Banting never worked on the remedy although he did write to the National Research Council, setting out his ideas, before starting on his fatal airplane flight to England. However, he left behind him a man equally capable, equally enthusiastic. That man was Dr. C. H. Best, who worked with Banting on insulin and who now heads the naval research unit. He, as a matter of fact, was the man who told Banting dogs became seasick and could be used as test animals. Almost since the outbreak of war he had had the idea of a specialized research unit for the armed services. (Dr. Best was on navy duty in England when the official release on seasickness was made.)

Shortly before the death of Sir Frederick Banting the idea took Dr. Best to Ottawa. He, too, saw

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Surgeon Captain McCallum. He explained what he wanted to do and visioned a research unit to study nutrition, vitamins, seasickness and the hundred and one other things which raise or lower the efficiency of fighting imn. The plan was laid before Hon. Angus L. Macdonald, the Navy minister. He quickly gave his approval and the naval research unit was born.

Threefold Attack

“When we started out on the seasickness research we had three main things to do,” said one of the research men connected with the work. “As a result our broad plan of attack was threefold. First we had to learn everything that had ever been learned of seasickness. Next we had to find a cause. Finally, with the cause established, came the most important step of all—that of finding the remedy.”

Working in Toronto were Surgeon Lieut. - Commander E. A. Sellers, Winnipeg; Lieut. N. R. Stephenson, biochemist; Surgeon-Lieut. John M. Parker and Lieut. C. R. Cowan, as well as many of the civilian members of the staff of the Ranting Institute.

In Montreal there was another and larger group whose activities were financed by the National Research Council. Heading it was Dr. Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute. Associated with him were Dr. W. J. McNally, Dr. E. A. Stuart, Surgeon-Lieut. W. S. Fields, Flushing, N.Y.; Dr. R. L. Noble, Lieut. Bruce Campbell, Prof. Boris Babkin, McGill University, Dr. Guy Morton and Dr. Andre Cipriani.

In close touch with all developments was, of course, Dr. Best, who by this time had gone on active service with the Navy.

Three of the scientists began searching for a lead by consulting everything they could find that had been written about seasickness. In Montreal Dr. W. J. McNally and Dr. E. A. Stuart undertook the task. In Toronto it was Lieut. N. R. Stephenson who buried himself deep in literature which had been written as early as 1880. Much of it was in the original German and French.

“A Swedish writer, Scjhöberg, was among the best of the earlier workers studied,” I was told. “His book stated that deaf-mutes don’t get seasick, even in the most violent storms. That was significant as well as interesting.”

The Montreal unit, began testing these theories. It tried deaf-mutes and confirmed Scjhöberg’s findings. Toronto preferred to do its preliminary research along the lines of the reaction of animals. It made dogs seasick and then began to look for changes resulting from the seasickness.

“We got a lot of interesting results but they were all interesting only from a negative standpoint,” one of the Toronto workers reported. “For instance, we tested the blood before and after seasickness. We could find no significant change. Other investigations were also without positive result.”

One thing they did learn, however, was that dogs were affected by psychological means. If they were made sick six or seven days continuously, the dogs would get sick as soon as they were put on the seasick machine— without any motion whatever.

“The same thing happens with dogs and a hypodermic syringe,” I was told.

“Dogs get sick from morphine injec1 tions. We have found it a fact that flogs sickened from morphia on a number of occasions will get sick if you inject only plain water. Some will get sick at the mere sight of the syringe.”

This particular fact was of peculiar interest to Dr. Babkin in Montreal. He had been a student of the famous Russian scientist, Pavlov—the man who specialized on the psychologicalphysiological behavior of animals. It was Pavlov who demonstrated that if you ring a bell every time you feed a dog, after a period of time the dog’s digestive system will react at the ringing of the bell just as though it had been given a full meal. It drools saliva. The stomach muscles work as though actually swallowing food.

All this preparatory research occupied the better part of a year, but important and valuable knowledge was being gained with each step. The unit had established definitely many factors which did nothing to cause seasickness. It was now time to ascertain what did.

Suspicions Aroused

Scientists were suspicious of a little organ that lies in the inner ear. Known as the labyrinth mechanism, or vestibular apparatus, it, along with the muscle senses and the eyes, is one of the things which sends messages to the brain that the body is off balance. Since deaf-mutes do not get seasick and because balance being upset in a storm is an obvious possible cause of seasickness, the labyrinth mechanism was suspect.

Gray’s Anatomy—medical textbook —carries a number of medical artist’s drawings of the labyrinth mechanism. In these drawings it looks something like an oversized snail—a Disney species, perhaps—with a number of pretzel-shaped antennae attached. It works something on the principle of a carpenter’s spirit level.

“Actually, it consists of three tubes, curled around each other,” was the explanation given to me. “The tubes are filled with endolymph, a mucous type of liquid which has little pieces of limestone floating around in it, These bits of limestone are just big enough to be visible to the naked eye. At one spot in the labyrinth is a series of little, hair-like nerves. When the head twists, for instance, or is thrown out of balance, the little bits of limestone floating in the endolymph strike against the hairs. The hairs, in turn, send a message to the receiving centre in the brain and the brain knows the body is off balance.”

With the labyrinth mechanism regarded as the possible villain in the piece, the next step was to establish its guilt beyond the question of a doubt. Susceptible dogs were operated on and the mechanism was removed. The dogs no longer got seasick.

Science had cleared its first big hurdle.

Research men are a bit hesitant about going out on a limb as to what happens after the pieces of limestone strike against the hair-like nerves, but this is a probable explanation.

In the case of a violent disturbance, such as a rough ocean voyage, the balance is disturbed so often that the labyrinth nerve centre sends out a constant series of messages to the brain’s receiving set. In some cases— in fact in the majority, as only 40% of people get seasick—the brain is capable of receiving and clearing these messages quite efficiently. But in the case of those not immune the receiving centre

gets jammed and distress signais are sent out. These distress messages reach the portion of the brain which deals with the vomiting nerves and seasickness is the result.

Meanwhile Canada’s Navy was growing by leaps and bounds. The number of personnel was expanding rapidly. More and more sailors were becoming seasick. Something had to he done about it if Canada’s fighting ships were to he manned by men who were fighting fît. As a result it was decided to slacken up on seeking causes and concentrate on the remedy. The first step was to find a method of making men seasick on land, and to make them seasick in sufficiently large numbers to give conclusive results.

They knew that a pitching motion, obtained by driving head on into a heavy sea, is worse than a rolling motion and that an up-and-down bounce, as in a very small boat riding high waves, is worst of all. Some persons are affected by only one type of motion. They get sick on some ships and not on others.

English scientists had built Hwings to simulate this pitching motion, and, following their experiments. Dr. Andre Cipriani, a graduate in engineering and medicine at McGill, had been busy in Montreal constructing a strange-looking apparatus. It was something which might have come from the brain of a Jules Verne—an electrically driven seesaw, mounted on rollers and requiring a room 20 by 35 foot to house. In a cage on a rocker aí one end of this seesaw sal a poor, lonesome sailor, tin container clasped to his chest so that he would not be without solace if and when the machine proved stronger than his humanity to what is scientifically termed "motion sickness." The rating, by means of the electrical controls, could be thrown sharply up and down through a distance of 12 feet. At the same time independently controlled rockers tossed him from side to Hide, either in rhythm with the seesaw or in sudden, unrelated movements. Altogether it was a most unpleasant experience.

Daddy of All Storms

“The boys who rode in this weird

contraption and many did.....called it

H.M.C.S. Mal de Mer,” an officer at naval headquarters told me. "It was violent, hut it did the job. Any susceptible who went through it knew all the agony and all the nausea of seasickness. He experienced the daddy of all storms at sea."

In Toronto, however, Lieut. C. R. Cowan was working on a device of his own. It consisted of a rope-controlled swing in which the man acting as the guinea pig sat in a r**clining position while Lieut. Cowan and his associates gave artificially, hut under control, the same movements as obtained at sea. For trial and error purposes the swings were satisfactory and the roller seesaw was abandoned. Six of the swings were installed at H.M.C.S. York in Toronto and several at the unit in Montreal.

"Here w?e took into account one of the psychological truths regarding seasickness,” a naval spokesman said. “There is nothing that hurries seasickness so much as seeing some other sufferer leaning over the rail. Accordingly we boxed in each swing so the five other guinea pigs could not see if one of their number became nauseated.”

To the suggestion they might be able to hearand the sound of a man being seasick is also distressing to a

man who is afraid he will be— (he Navy also had an answer.

"We tried not to let them really reach the stage of retching,” Navy men said. "When the subject felt he was going to be ill he signalled us at the last possible moment and we stopped the swings. We watched carefully, too. When the face became pale, when the subject showed signs of suffering or broke out into a sweat, we stopped the swings.”

The Navy first wanted to observe a large number of results. Mass results at this stage were important. Five hundred naval personnel, both officers and ratings, comprised the first class of guinea pigs. They were given no known preventive hut were told the purpose of the investigation.

“Before a man was put on the swing he was told what was going on,” naval men told me. "We explained the importance of the thing and asked for co-operation. We certainly were given it.”

Each of the subjects filled out a questionnaire before being swung. This gave information as to the time of his last meal, whether or not he was subject to a motion sickness at sea, in the air or on trains; and his activity prior to swinging. This questionnaire was to be valuable, at a later stage, in correlating results.

After the swinging, the subject described any symptoms which developed. On the following day, if he had been sick, he reported back and gave additional information on the |H*riod of his sickness and any aftereffects there might have been. Those who were immune were checked no furt her.

As a result of those first 500 tests the research staff learned that people are about 40% susceptible to seasickness in a greater or less degree. It was learned, too, that a man might be just as sick on an empty stomach as he would be soon after eating. Most of the susceptibles became ill within 20 minutes of swinging—some much more rapidly than that.

Then began the real search for the remedy. Contrary to earlier published reports the Germans had no secret remedy.

"The reading which our staff had done gave us a little more than 100 chemicals which had been reported of value in the treatment of motion sickness.” 1 was told. "We didn’t overlook patent medicines either. In-

cluded in the remedies on our list was the German preparation known as Vasa no.”

Naval authorities exploded reports that after the outbreak of war this preparation disappeared and became available again only when German merchant ships with a supply of the drug aboard were captured. These reports had Vasano being rushed to Toronto and Montreal for analysis.

The 100 possible drugs which the research staff had on its list, themselves fell into about 20 groups, such as the barbiturates, the belladonnas, nitrates, alkaloids and opium alkaloids. Since it was very often true that if one drug in a group was of no use, then none would be, the search was narrowed considerably. And with the two units in Toronto and Montreal each working on different groups, more vital time was saved.

Even then, however, it was a case of trial and error, over and over again.

“Throughout all this the groups in Toronto and Montreal maintained very close liaison,” I was told. “Meetings were held every two months for full discussion but, in the interval, if either group obtained a result which was significant it used the telephone and got the other group to check its findings.”

At H.M.C.S. York, in Toronto, perhaps 7,000 or 8,000 tests were made. From these, data were established on 3,500 cases. This did not mean 3,500 individual susceptibles for, though it wasn’t usual, some of the subjects were swung as many as seven or eight times. These susceptibles were given various experimental remedies before being swung. Some of the chemicals gave 20% protection, some even better. Then came the day, last spring, when just the right combination of drugs was used.

“We knew we had something that seemed pretty good,” a Navy man told me. "But we were far from certain even then. A lot of factors might have entered into that seemingly good first result.”

Continuous research was carried on. All told, in Toronto and Montreal, 150 further tests were made before the scientists really began to be enthusiastic and decided to learn whether the remedy which had proved effective with man-made seasickness would be equally good with that produced at sea.

Accordingly Lieut. - Commander Sellers, Surgeon - Lieut. Fields and

Surgeon-Lieut. Parker, with their little pink pills, something like a pink quinine capsule, started for an eastern Canadian port.

"It was exasperating,” they said when interviewed at the request of naval intelligence. "No sooner did we get there than the weather calmed. We’d go out day after day in all manner of craft and not a person would be sick. The Atlantic was like a millpond.”

For eight weeks they waited for a real Atlantic storm. Then Lieut. Fields got a break. He went aboard a convoy with a large number of personnel available and ran into rough weather. Some of the personnel were given nothing; some were given a sugar milk, or “dummy” pill, and some received the real remedy. The results showed that while the dummy pills had a psychological result, decreasing seasickness in some measure, the results obtained from the real pill were exceptionally good.

More Tests Given

Again, however, this one test was not regarded as conclusive. More and more tests were made under rough weather conditions and more and more results were tabulated. All gave the same approximate ratio of success. The scientists were satisfied. The tests were sufficiently good, sufficiently comprehensive to warrant the capsules being put into production.

"But we are not entirely satisfied even yet,” I was told. "The tests are still going on, although in a more complicated form. Research into causes is continuing. We hope, eventually, to produce a remedy which will be 100% effective.”

I asked whether, in addition to being a preventive, the pink pills are also a cure. For those who go to sea and who are taken by surprise by mal de mer there is solace. The pink pills will usually act just as effectively after you have been taken ill. Apparently after taking them you’ll he out walking the deck in comparatively no time at all.

Generally, however, the principle is to take one of the capsules before sailing. If you are one of the three in four sufferers who benefit from the pill you will be protected for approximately eight hours. Then, if any uncomfortable symptoms develop you can take another. After about two days at sea, if the weather is rough, an immunity probably will be set up by the system itself.

"What is the general effect of the capsule? What does it do?” I asked.

"It is believed to work on the brain’s receiving set, in something the same way as a sedative,” I was told. "rI he receiving centre does not become upset when the messages come pouring in from the labyrinth mechanism anil the result is it sends out no distress signals. That, we believe, in layman’s language, is the reason we have an effective preventive.”

The Navy has no intention of keeping the pill to itself. The RCAF, for instance, has been kept fully informed of any significant developments. Many lads, whose hearts were in the air, have been lost to air crew' duties because their brain’s receiving set could not accept and clear those messages from the labyrinth mechanism. Many boys actually flying, now, do it at the price of great physical discomfort. The pill may be a help in these cases. Research by the RCAF is still going on and this research may be of more importance, scientifically, than that of the Navy.