Hans Selye's Stressful Theory

“What is not fully understood is not possessed”--Goethe

“It is the function of science to discover the existence of a general reign of order in nature and to find the causes governing this order. And this refers in equal measure to the relations of man-social and political-and to the entire universe as a whole.”--Dmitri Mendeleev 

Hans Selye MD, PhD (1907-1982) is the Father of stress theory.  During medical school in Hungary, he suspected that a common mechanism causes weight loss, discomfort, fever, fatigue, edema, and inflammation in diverse diseases. A Rockefeller scholarship brought him to McGill University, where he discovered that "noxious agents" induce a pathological triad in laboratory rats (swelling of the adrenal cortex, atrophy of the thymus, and gastric ulcers).(1) He hypothesized that a physiological “stress mechanism” causes disease, and that its discovery would enable a “unified theory of medicine.”(1, 2)

Great excitement followed the 1953 discovery of DNA. Many believed that Selye's hypothetical mechanism would explain embryology, physiology, pathology, stress, and perhaps even the very secret of life. Selye became the most prominent physician in the world. He trained hundreds of researchers and led an international search for the stress mechanism that lasted 30 years and squandered hundreds of careers, thousands of tortured test animals, and millions of dollars. It achieved important discoveries, but failed to find any clue of the stress mechanism, and besmirched the reputation of science. Selye’s ideas were abandoned and he died frustrated and forgotten. 

In retrospect, Selye was ahead of his time, like Jules Verne predicting trips to the moon before rockets were invented. His theory was never disproved, but prominent professors proclaimed that no single mechanism could explain the multiple manifestations of embryology, physiology, pathology and stress. Meanwhile, theoretical progress stagnated.(3,4) Finally, 30 years after stress theory was abandoned, fresh information from unrelated research has revealed the testable “mammalian stress mechanism” (MSM) that Selye postulated.

Now equipped with a testable mechanism, Selye's theory is poised to resume its revolutionary role as the prevailing paradigm of medical research.(5-7Medicine has done its job. The rest remains in the realm of power, politics, and privilege that prevails over all human endeavor.  

"Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale. Medicine, as a social science, as the science of human beings, has the obligation to point out problems and to attempt their theoretical solution: the politician, the practical anthropologist, must find the means for their actual solution. The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction."----Rudolf Virchow

1.         H. Selye, Sketch for a unified theory of medicine. Int Rec Med Gen Pract Clin167, 181-203 (1954).

2.         H. Selye, In vivo: the case for supramolecular biology, presented in six informal, illustrated lectures.  (Liveright Pub. Corp., New York,, 1967), pp. 168 p.

3.         R. M. Yehuda, B, Behavioral Stress Response: Protective and Damaging Effects. (New York Academy of Science, ed. Annals, 2005), pp. 331.

4.         J. Pontin, in Technology Review,J. Pontin, Ed. (MIT, MIT, 2010), vol. 114, chap. 8, pp. 1.

5.         L. S. Coleman, A Stress Repair Mechanism that Maintains Vertebrate Structure during Stress. Cardiovasc Hematol Disord Drug Targets,  (2010).

6.         L. S. Coleman, Stress repair mechanism activity explains inflammation and apoptosis. Advances in Bioscience and Biotechnology3, 459-503 (2012).

7.         L. S. Coleman, in Hypotheses in Clinical Medicine,e. a. Shoja MM, Ed. (Nova Biomedical, New York, NY, 2012),  chap. 29.