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Biography of Hans Hugo Bruno Selye

Biography of Hans Hugo Bruno Selye

Hans Selye (January 26, 1907 – October 16, 1982): Birth of Stress & “the father of stress”.

Hans Selye was a pioneering Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist of Hungarian origin. Selye was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary on 26 January 1907. He grew up in Komárom, Hungary and the Hungarian language university in that town bears his name. He 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.

Selye became a professor of histology in 1941 and from 1945 he was the first director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery, Université de Montreal, where he had 40 assistants and worked with 15,000 laboratory animals. In 1968 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. He held this position until 1976. 1979, Dr. Selye and Arthur Antille started the Hans Selye Foundation.

Later Selye and eight Nobel laureates founded the Canadian Institute of Stress. Kantha (1992), in a survey of an elite group of scientists who have authored over 1,000 research publications, identified Selye as one who had published 1,700 research papers, 15 monographs, and 39 books. Selye held three doctorates was made the doctor of honor at several universities in different countries and received numerous honors (M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc.). He was a nominee for the Nobel prize for the first time in 1949. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize 10 times.  He died on 16 October 1982 in Montreal, Canada.

Work on stress

Selye is the founder of the concept of stress. Finding an acceptable definition of stress was a problem that haunted Selye his entire life. As usual, “The Greeks had a word for it.” Twenty-four centuries previously, Hippocrates had written that disease was not only pathos (suffering) but also ponos (toil), as the body fought to restore normalcy. While ponos might have sufficed, the Greeks settled for stress. The Japanese subsequently came up with their own version. When he was asked to present a paper in France, it was found that there was no word in French for stress, so they coined one: Le stress.

Similarly, when asked to speak in Germany, there was no German word for stress, so it was named Der stress. Because it was clear that most people viewed stress as some unpleasant threat, Selye had to create a new word, “stressor”, in order to distinguish between stimulus and response. In helping to prepare the First Annual Report on Stress in 1951, Selye’s own writings concluded, “Stress, in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”

As early as in 1926, still only in his second year of medical school, Selye began developing his now-famous theory of the influence of stress on people’s ability to cope with and adapt to the pressures of injury and disease. He observed that patients suffering from different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms. They just “looked sick”. This observation may have been the first step in his recognition of “stress”. He later discovered and described the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), came from an endocrinological experiment in which he injected mice with extracts of various organs.

He at first believed he had discovered a new hormone, but was proved wrong when every irritating substance he injected produced the same symptoms (swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus, gastric and duodenal ulcers). This, paired with his observation that people with different diseases exhibit similar symptoms, led to his description of the effects of “noxious agents” as he at first called it. He later coined the term “stress”. GAS is a response of the body to demands placed upon it. The Syndrome details how stress induces hormonal autonomic responses and, over time, these hormonal changes can lead to ulcers, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, arthritis, kidney disease, and allergic reactions.

He acknowledged the influence of Claude Bernard (who developed the idea of milieu intérieur) and Walter Cannon’s “homeostasis”. Selye conceptualized the physiology of stress as having two components: a set of responses which he called the “general adaptation syndrome”, and the development of a pathological state from ongoing, unrelieved stress.

Selye discovered and documented that stress differs from other physical responses in that stress is stressful whether one receives good or bad news, whether the impulse is positive or negative. He called negative stress “distress” and positive stress “eustress”. The system whereby the body copes with stress, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) system, was also first described by Selye. He also pointed to an “alarm state”, a “resistance state”, and an “exhaustion state”, largely referring to glandular states. Later he developed the idea of two “reservoirs” of stress resistance, or alternatively stress energy.

Selye wrote The Stress of Life (1956), From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist (1964) and Stress without Distress (1974). In 1975 he created the International Institute of Stress and in His seminal work “A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents” was published in 1936 in Nature. Selye’s multi-faceted work and concepts have been utilized in medicine and in almost all biological disciplines from endocrinology to animal breeding and social-psychology.