A Brief History of Motion Sickness

Motion sickness, and in particular sea sickness, has always played a part in history. Unsurprisingly there are heroes and famous people among the great roll call of sufferers.

Sailors and travelers have suffered from motion sickness since the earliest times. Ancient Chinese and Indian records mention ginger being used as a preventative, and sea sickness is frequently mentioned in Greek and Roman texts. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, wrote about the condition, Cicero was happy to avoid it on a long voyage, and poor Seneca suffered so badly that 'he could bring nothing more up'. Horace writes of sea sickness as a social leveler - wealth is no protection and the rich man suffers just as much as the poor man - while the accounts of Julius Caesar's military campaigns tell of vomiting recruits and sea sick horses.

During the voyages of discovery in the Middle Ages sea sickness was a constant problem. Columbus and his men were affected. Sea sickness also played a part in England's 'against the odds' victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. The admiral in command of the Armada was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a military general who had spent very little time at sea. He suffered severe sea sickness, and this, on top of other strokes of bad luck, proved disastrous for the Spanish.

Terrible seasickness was among the many horrors endured by the slaves on the Middle Passage. A surprising number of naval men suffered from seasickness, and it is frequently mentioned in 18th and 19th century naval accounts. Even Admiral Nelson, the British naval hero who first went to sea at the age of 12, was a chronic sufferer. He is said to have never got over it, and was miserably seasick for the first part of every voyage. Richard Henry Dana, in his book Two Years Before the Mast (1840), writes of the utter horror of working aloft at the top of the masts in "an ugly, chopping sea, which heaved and pitched the vessel about".

Charles Darwin was another person who was chronically seasick, and Lawrence of Arabia is said to have become sick while riding a camel ('ship of the desert') across the deserts of Mesopotamia.

There were a number of 19th and early 20th century attempts to develop anti motion sickness devices, including an 'anti motion sickness belt' manufactured by a Canadian company, a vibrating anti seasick deck chair "in which sitters imagine they are driving motor cars", advertised by the Hamburg-American Steamship Company, and - most extravagantly - the Bessemer Saloon - a cabin modeled on the movement of a compass and designed to maintain its stability independent from the movement of the ship.

The early 20th century development of air ships must have been a wonderful relief to the few wealthy enough to travel in them. A detailed account by George Grant, a passenger on the ill-fated Hindenburg, stated that "the movement of the Airship hardly varies. An occasional slight roll is therefore hardly perceptible. Air sickness is quite unknown, a strong point which cannot be too strongly emphasized." Unfortunately air ships have other issues and the famous Hindenburg Disaster of 1937 put an end to commercial services.

During World War II sea sickness and air sickness were recognized as a serious handicap to the war effort, and medical research was done. However, the big breakthrough - actually a chance discovery that antihistamine medications can effectively prevent motion sickness - came only in 1947. Since then Scopamine has been added to the anti-motion sickness armory.

But now there is a new challenge - space sickness! Apparently a third of Soviet astronauts suffer severe motion sickness in space. This is a big enough problem to attract millions of research dollars. Perhaps another breakthrough will also benefit those of use still awaiting a complete and side-effect free cure here on earth!


sgroclkc on April 14, 2017:
Carsickness is caused by roaring low-frequency noise. Symptoms of carsickness get stronger when vehicles bump or shake more frequently, which is just a coincidence. It is just because low-frequency noise gets louder when bumping and shaking gets more serious. Without such low-frequency noise, people will not feel carsick no matter how hard the car bumps or shakes. For example, people get carsick on trains or subways running at the same speed when hearing low-frequency noise. Without such noise on trains or subways, carsickness can be avoided. It fully proves that low-frequency noise is the only reason that causes carsickness.

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