Hans Selye and Stress

World Conference on Stress. Stamp of Hungary, 2007

World Conference on Stress. Stamp of Hungary, 2007

On January 26, 1907, pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye was born. He conducted much important scientific work on the hypothetical non-specific response of an organism to stressors. Although he did not recognize all of the many aspects of glucocorticoids, Selye was aware of their role in the stress response. He is considered the first to demonstrate the existence of biological stress.

Hans Selye was born in Vienna,  the only child of the Hungarian surgeon Hugo Selye and Maria Felicitas, née Langbank. He grew up in Komárom, Hungary. Selye became a Doctor of Medicine and Chemistry in Prague in 1929, went to Johns Hopkins University on a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship in 1931 and then went to McGill University in Montreal where he started researching the issue of stress in 1936. Right after World War II, Selye joined the Université de Montréal where he had 40 assistants. In his experiments, for instance, Selye injected mice with extracts of various organs. At first, the scientist believed to have discovered a new hormone. However, he later noticed that humans sometimes have the same symptoms and he then described the effects of “noxious agents” as he at first called it. He later coined the term “stress“.

Selye conceptualized the physiology of stress consisting of two components: the “general adaptation syndrome” as a set of responses, and the development of a pathological state from ongoing, unrelieved stress. He further made the discovery that there are different kinds of stress depending on the impulse, e.g. if it is negative or positive. Further, Selye described a system whereby the body copes with stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis system. Since the publication of his first scientific work in 1936, Selye has written more than 1700 works and 39 books on the subject of stress.

To Selye’s most important works belong ‘The Stress of Life‘, published in 1956, ‘From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist’ published in 1964 and ten years later ‘Stress without Distress’. At the time of his death in 1982, his works were cited in more than 362 000 scientific works and in countless stories, in most languages and all countries. He is still by far the world’s most cited author on this subject. In recent years it has emerged that Selye worked as a consultant for the tobacco industry from the 1950s until his death, receiving extensive funding for his research, and taking part in pro-smoking campaigns paid for by the tobacco industry.[4] He also helped RJ Reynolds to recruit other scientists, and there is evidence that industry lawyers helped with the wording and content of some of Selye’s later academic papers.

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