A Sure Cure for Seasickness Is To Sit Under a Tree

Spike Milligan? John MacGregor? William Gordon Stables? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The nausea of seasickness feels endless. An absurdist quip suggests that the only genuine remedy is a return to solid ground:

The best cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.

The Irish-English comedian Spike Milligan has received credit for this line, but I haven’t been able to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1971 Spike Milligan published “Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall”, the first volume of a seven-volume memoir recounting his experiences during World War 2. During one episode in 1943 the troopship Milligan was traveling on encountered turbulent weather. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The storm never let up. It was only this that prevented U-boat attacks, though I know many a sick-covered wreck who would rather have had calm seas and been torpedoed. A poor green-faced thing asked, “Isn’t there any bloody cure for seasickness?”

“Yes,” I said. “Sit under a tree.” I had to be quick.

Milligan presented the joke in a question-answer format. Yet, he did not create this jest which has a long history.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1879 a thematic match appeared in “The Saturday Magazine” of Boston, Massachusetts within an article discussing nineteenth century swindles: 2

Not an uncommon device consists in advertising “An infallible cure for sea-sickness. Any person using the remedy can never suffer from the distressing malady. Recipe sent by enclosing two postage-stamps and a stamped envelope.”
The reply is: “Don’t go to sea.”

In 1888 a newspaper in Livingston, Alabama printed a similar absurdist quip about seasickness. The terrestrial feature was a mountain instead of a tree, and the author was anonymous: 3

A sure cure for seasickness is to climb a mountain.

An 1896 book by Surgeon-Major John MacGregor M.D. contained a chapter with the subhead “Infallible Cure for Sea-sickness” which contained the following advice: 4

The best thing to do, in short, is to do nothing at all. Father Time, and that beautiful recuperative power of Nature, are by far the best physicians, and will generally put everything right in the end. If not, I, as a physician myself, will recommend one infallible cure, namely—Go ashore and stay there.

In 1900 a close match for the joke under examination appeared in “The Coventry Herald” of Warwickshire, England within a medical advice column by William Gordon Stables M.D.: 5

Get as strong as possible before you go on board. If run down you will suffer greatly. There is no cure for sea-sickness, except sitting down under a tree, and they don’t grow these on ships. Keep on deck all you can.

The column by Stables appeared in other newspapers such as “The Ipswich Journal” of Suffolk, England. 6 Thus, the quip achieved further circulation.

In 1903 “The Omaha Daily Bee” of Omaha, Nebraska, 7 “The Argonaut” of San Francisco, California, and other periodicals 8 published a dialog version of the joke while acknowledging a popular humor magazine:

Nan—Is there any infallible cure for seasickness?
Tom—Oh, yes; when you feel the symptoms coming on, all you have to do is to go out and sit under a tree. You will very soon recover.—Puck.

In 1908 “Good Housekeeping” magazine published a mordant variant joke: 9

Sudden death is said to be the only infallible cure for seasickness, a prescription not likely to be tested, even by the most unfortunate victim.

In 1942 H. L. Mencken’s compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles” included the following: 10

The only cure for seasickness is to sit on the shady side of an old brick church in the country. ENGLISH SAILORS’ PROVERB

In 1943 Spike Milligan employed the joke according to his 1971 memoir as mentioned previously in this article: 11

A poor green-faced thing asked, “Isn’t there any bloody cure for seasickness?”
“Yes,” I said. “Sit under a tree.” I had to be quick.

Milligan died in 2002, and shortly afterward the “Sunday World” of Dublin, Ireland ascribed an instance of the joke to him: 12

I read a couple of great quotes attributed to him during the week.
‘All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.’
‘A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.’

In conclusion, Spike Milligan did use this joke in his 1971 memoir, but it was circulating before he was born. QI tentatively credits medical journalist William Gordon Stables as originator based on the November 2, 1900 citation. Future researchers may discover earlier matches.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of a tree near the ocean at sunset from Bessi at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to David Taylor whose email message containing the quip attributed to Spike Milligan led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1972 (1971 Copyright), Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall by Spike Milligan, Part 3, Chapter: January 1943 — At Sea, Quote Page 135, Book Club Associates, London. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1879 March 22, The Saturday Magazine, Volume 1, Number 16, Minor Plunderings A La Mode, Quote Page 442, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1888 October 18, The Livingston Journal, (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 6, Livingston, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1896, Through the Buffer State: A Record of Recent Travels Through Borneo, Siam and Cambodia by Surgeon-Major John MacGregor M.D (Indian Medical Service), Chapter 1, Quote Page 3, F. V. White & Company, London. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  5. 1900 November 2, The Coventry Herald, Health and Home by W. Gordon Stables M.D. (William Gordon Stables), To My Correspondents, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Warwickshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 1900 November 3, The Ipswich Journal, Health and Home by W. Gordon Stables M.D., To My Correspondents, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Ipswich, Suffolk, England. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1903 July 28, The Omaha Daily Bee, Flitting Fancies, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Omaha, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1903 August 10, The Argonaut, The Alleged Humorists, Quote Page 96, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1908 June, Good Housekeeping, Discoveries, Start Page 682, Quote Page 688, Column 1, Phelps Publishing Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Seasickness, Quote Page 1071, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  11. 1972 (1971 Copyright), Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall by Spike Milligan, Part 3, Chapter: January 1943 — At Sea, Quote Page 135, Book Club Associates, London. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2002 March 3, Sunday World, Spike: He’s Goon to be missed by Colm Hayes, Quote Page 130 (6), Column 1, Dublin, Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)