Remembering Hans Selye
Forty years after his death, we reflect on Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome and his work on the concept of stress
Hans Selye, one of the most famous physician-scientists of the 20th century and founder of the concept of stress, died 40 years ago on October 16, 1982. He was commemorated at the 2022 Dubrovnik Summer School of Pathophysiology, which focused on the complexity of various etiopathogenetic processes in response to stress and other disease-inducing stimuli (“noxae”). Selye once said in an address to novice students, “My advice to any young person at the beginning of their career is to try to look for the mere outlines of big things with their fresh, untrained, and unprejudiced mind.” Because it serves as such appropriate guidance for understanding the limits of analytical reductionism that prevails so often in biomedical sciences, we used this quote as the take-home message of the summer school.
Our summer school has touched upon aging, regeneration, mind-body physiology, degenerative processes, and the way component properties interconnect as a whole. In keeping with this holistic approach, Selye’s familiar concept of stress, introduced 85 years ago, appears as an orderly and coherent response to a variety of external or internal stimuli (1). Eustress and distress are two sides of the same coin – the former a healthy arousal triggered by stressors necessary for appropriately coping with challenging situations; the latter (also known as allostatic overload) a pathological, potentially disease-inducing process.
Selye’s general adaptation syndrome represents the properties and patterns of the whole, rather than individual components. In questioning how nature really works, Selye overcame the limits of reductionism and generated a new vision regarding the physiology of health and disease. His theories on the role of organic responses to emotion, illness, and injury revolutionized our understanding of the causes and mechanisms of disease and the mind-body connection.
Standing in the hall of fame
According to the Canadian Medical Association, Selye published over 1,700 articles and 39 books throughout his career, most dealing with stress (2). His popular books, The Stress of Life and Stress Without Distress, were international bestsellers and his scientific publications have been cited over 362,000 times. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an honorary member of 68 scientific societies worldwide, and the recipient of 43 honorary degrees. Selye was also appointed Companion of the Order of Canada – the highest decoration awarded by the country – and received 17 Nobel Prize nominations. He was frequently mentioned in print publications and was celebrated on postal stamps in Hungary and Canada. The University of Komarno in Slovakia even bears his name to acknowledge that Selye spent his childhood in the predominantly Hungarian town.
Argentinian physiologist and Nobel prize winner Bernardo A. Houssay praised Selye’s Textbook of Endocrinology as a volume of “historic importance, since it is the most complete synthesis of endocrinological facts published up to date” (3). According to Claude Fortier, a Canadian endocrinologist, Selye was “one of the rare giants of contemporary biology, blessed with intuition, intellectual depth, and remarkable energy” (4).
In the book Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century, Mark Jackson said, “Selye’s formulation of adaptation and disease provided an important conceptual matrix for subsequent discussions of the mechanisms and manifestations of stress reactions – serving at the same time to fertilize research into the biopsychosocial determinants and the pathophysiological pathways of chronic disease well into the twenty-first century” (4).
Selye’s influence and visibility crossed borders of scientific and medical professions and his concepts of stress became an intriguing story for the public and press. Time magazine published several cover stories on the multiple manifestations of stress in the lives of contemporary Americans, often focusing on Selye’s theories.
We found that medical students attending the Summer School, who shared with us their experience of stress in medical school, truly appreciated Selye’s contribution to solving a problem they have to face every day. And they're certainly not alone. In 1976, British psychiatrist Richard Mackarness insisted that Selye would “come to rank with Louis Pasteur, Frederick Banting, and Alexander Fleming among the immortals of medical research” for his role in clarifying the “mechanics of adaptation and the body’s response to the threats to its stability” (5). Indeed, because stress reactivity binds together both psycho- and body-physiology into an unified pattern of response, the concept attracted many researchers studying mind and mental processes. Selye was given symbolic names such as the “father of stress” and “Einstein of medicine” – and those titles live on today.
- H Selye, “A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents,” Nature, 138, 32 (1936). PMID: 9722327.
- Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, “Hans Selye, MD PhD” (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3MaowLJ.
- M Jackson, “Evaluating the Role of Hans Selye in the Modern History of Stress,” Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century, 33. Boydell & Brewer: 2014.
- M Jackson, “Evaluating the Role of Hans Selye in the Modern History of Stress,” Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century, 41. Boydell & Brewer: 2014.
- M Jackson, “Evaluating the Role of Hans Selye in the Modern History of Stress,” Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century, 40. Boydell & Brewer: 2014.
Retired Professor of Pathophysiology and Internist at the University of Zagreb School of Medicine and Founder and Principal Advisor of the Dubrovnik Summer School of Pathophysiology, Centre for Advanced Academic Studies, Croatia.
Professor Emeritus of Pathology at the University of Kansas, Kansas City, USA.