Saturday, January 16, 2010

The father of stress

In order to gain some context about the study of stress, I’ve been reading The Stress of Life, by Hans Selye. His story is a nice example of how the scientific process sometimes succeeds in ways it isn’t really expected to.

As a newly-minted researcher in the 1930s, Selye was studying reproductive hormones by injecting rats with extracts from rat ovaries and placentas. He was hoping to discover a new sex hormone. At one point, he thought he’d found one: a particular extract caused the rats’ adrenal cortices (the outer part of the adrenal glands) to enlarge, their lymphatic structures (part of the immune system, clubhouses for white blood cells) to shrink, and stomach ulcers to form, in a reproducible triad of reactions. He writes, “You may well imagine my happiness! At the age of 28, I already seemed to be on the track of a new hormone.”

As Selye continued to test his new hormone, however, he found that extracts from the pituitary gland caused the same reaction. (Maybe the pituitary makes this new hormone as well?) But he also noticed that the less pure his extracts were, the greater this triad of reactions was. If the reactions were happening because of a new hormone he had isolated, less pure extracts should cause smaller reactions, not greater ones. So Selye injected the rats with formalin, to see how they responded to something toxic that was definitely not a new sex hormone. And the same triad of reactions showed up, even more dramatically.

Young Selye was crushed. “I do not think I had ever been more profoundly disappointed! Suddenly all my dreams of discovering a new hormone were shattered. All the time and all the materials that went into this long study were wasted.” He sulked for days, unable to focus his energy on his work.

As Selye marshalled himself to return to work, he began to realize that, in fact, he had isolated a general reaction to damage to the body. Any damage will have some consquences specific to the type of damage (trauma, infection, ongoing difficult social situations), but Selye realized that he was now able to describe the general consequences that are associated with all damage. In fact, he enthused, “I could find no noxious agent that did not produce the syndrome.” He was re-energized and hugely enthusiastic about this new direction of research.

Unfortunately, Selye’s mentors and co-workers thought he was crazy. A respected friend called his new direction “the pharmacology of dirt.” However, one mentor, who happened to be a Nobel laureate, did support Selye. Without that one supporter, he might have given up, and it might have been many more years before we were able to start to talk about the health effects of stress. Or perhaps the enthusiasm (or lack of perspective) of youth would have carried him through. Who knows.

Selye first published about his new “damage syndrome” in 1936, and a few years later borrowed the term “stress” from physics as a more concise name. He insists that despite common usage today, “stress” is caused by a “stressor” (a neologism of Selye’s making), so if you are being precise, you should say that you have “stress produced by interpersonal relationships,” not “interpersonal stress.” Being a reasonable sort of guy, however, he allows as to how we are all going to say things imprecisely from time to time, and he’s okay with that. He shares the lovely story of his lecture on stress to the professors of the Collège de France, in French, at the end of which the professors earnestly argued about how to translate “stress” into French (dommage? aggression? tension? détress?), at the end of which it was agreed that a new French word must be coined; that the term must be masculine (he didn’t quite understand why); and so henceforth he might refer to his syndrome as le stress.

Towards the end of his book, Selye reflects on why he felt compelled to write about stress for the layperson:

Here, I have ventured into pure philosophy: a very dangerous thing for a medical scientist to do, and a thing for which I shall no doubt be severely rebuked by some of my more reserved and reticent colleagues! But, you see, it is part of my philosophy that I must express myself, so I cannot help it. It was indeed very stressful to spend all my adult life in the laboratory, working on stress; it was perhaps even more stressful to express my thoughts in the form of this book and of the many lectures I gave about its substance. But well do I know that not to express all this would have deprived me of much eustress and caused me much more distress.
It’s a charming book and I’m glad I took the time to read it, even though I’m unlikely to be able to cite very much of it in any papers that I write, due to its age.

Hans Selye, M.D. The Stress of Life, revised edition. McGraw-Hill, 1978.


  1. The one who said: "the pharmacology of dirt" was not a respected friend, but one professor Selye had when he was a student (before he discovered the GAS in 1936)

  2. I took a look in the text, and I think we’re both right. It reads: “ senior professor whom I admired very much and whose opinion meant a great deal to me. I knew he was a real friend...” I probably should have emphasized more that this friend was also a professor. (Maybe I was assuming that researchers don’t have non-academic friends!)