by Sarah Alger
In Massachusetts General Hospital’s collection is a laboratory notebook that details experiments conducted in 1944 and 1945. Tidy tables and neat handwriting show data gathered from a handful of research subjects: their weight, urine and stool output, blood analysis, and their intake of fresh water–and, curiously, sea water.
These subjects, all male, were conscientious objectors during World War II. Sent to Massachusetts General Hospital for duty, they underwent unusual experiments aimed at improving the life span of military men who found themselves adrift in life rafts.
Mass General’s Allan Macy Butler, chief of the hospital’s pediatric service, was charged by the Office of Scientific Research and Development to find ways to delay dehydration and improve military lifeboat rations, in collaboration with fellow pediatrician James Gamble.
In this particular experiment, subjects endured a starvation diet for a week and consumed a combination of fresh and sea water. Coleridge’s “Water, water, everywhere…nor any drop to drink” did not prove entirely true: A combination of one part sea water to three parts fresh appeared to be acceptable.
In a separate experiment, Butler found that “prolonged mechanical squeezing of 1 kilo of fresh sea bass” yielded fluid that was unsuitable and too scant for “the thirsting castaway.” In another, butterscotch or caramel candy appeared to slow the effects of dehydration.
Yet another experiment sent five subjects into Cotuit Bay off Cape Cod on a 14-foot-square raft to measure the effects of temperature, breeze and shade on their hydration. As Butler observed, “The circumstance of greatest hazard to castaways is absence of breeze.” Constantly wetting one’s clothes was advised for “keeping cool to a point beyond bodily pleasure but not across the margin of chilliness; a somewhat difficult precept.”
Physiological effects of typical life raft rations (malted milk tablets, biscuits, pork and chocolate) was the subject of another weeklong experiment–and offered a glimpse of the personalities of these stand-in castaways. Said one subject to researchers: “The biscuits tasted like compressed sawdust and if I were on a life raft I believe that I would have fed them to the fishes.” Remarked another: “The biscuits were all right during the first couple of days…Later on, of course, they were high and holy hell to get down…Around the fifth day I began to cherish deep and irreconcilable loathing for fasting in general and Navy rations in particular.”