This Week in History


The Stress Doctor

For the week of Monday January 21, 2002

On January 26, 1907, Hans Hugo Bruno Selye was born in Vienna, Austria. In a medical career that spanned more than 40 years, Selye developed and popularized the modern concept of stress, bringing it to the forefront of both medicine and psychology.

Dr. Hans Selye

Dr. Hans Selye
© Courtesy of the Canadian Institute of Stress

As the fourth generation in a family of doctors, Hans Selye was destined for a career in medicine. He studied and earned his medical degree in Prague and Paris before coming to Canada in 1932 to work at McGill University. Four years later, hoping to discover a new sex hormone, he experimented by injecting rats with hormone extracts. Selye detected three symptoms in the injected rats that no known hormone had ever produced. The rats all developed enlarged adrenal glands, shrunken thymus glands and bleeding ulcers. He thought he had discovered a new hormone, but became disappointed when he found that injecting rats with other toxins produced the same symptoms.

Rather than becoming discouraged, Selye began to re-think his experimental results. He hypothesized that the three symptoms might indicate a general reaction in the rats' bodies to different causes or sources of stress, which he termed "stressors." Further experiments with stressors, such as heat, cold and electric shock, confirmed that many different stressors produced the same symptoms in the rats. Later, believing that the symptoms were part of the body's defensive adaptation to stress, he called the cluster of three symptoms the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).

Selye's theory was revolutionary and at first the scientific community was skeptical of the GAS. Many doctors and researchers could not understand how a specific syndrome could have no particular cause! Undaunted, Selye worked tirelessly to promote his ideas, publishing more than 1700 articles and 40 books directed at both scientists and the general public.

Stamp of Dr. Hans Selye

Stamp of Dr. Hans Selye
© Canada Post Corporation, 1999.
Reproduced with permission.

He eventually broadened his research to study the effect of physical and psychological stressors on humans. By the end of his career, many of Selye's theories, including the GAS, had gained widespread acceptance. After his retirement, Selye continued to promote stress research, organizing the International Institute of Stress and co-founding the Canadian Institute of Stress. He received numerous awards for his work, including the Companion of the Order of Canada, this country's highest civilian honour. Dr. Selye died in Montréal in 1982.

Dr. Hans Selye, known internationally as the "father of stress research," has been designated a person of national historic significance.

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