Born in Vienna in 1907, Hans Selye attended the German University of Prague as well as the Universities of Paris and Rome.
In 1936 Selye wrote about a stress condition known as general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
He first observed the symptoms of GAS after injecting ovarian extracts into laboratory rats, an experiment he performed with the intent of discovering a new hormone.
Instead, however, he found that the extract stimulated the outer tissue of the adrenal glands of the rats, caused deterioration of the thymus gland, and produced ulcers and finally death.
He eventually determined that these effects could be produced by administering virtually any toxic substance, by physical injury, or by environmental stress.
Selye was able to extend his theory to humans, demonstrating that a stress-induced breakdown of the hormonal system could lead to conditions, such as heart disease and high blood pressure, that he called “diseases of adaptation.”
One of his greatest contributions was the demonstration of the stress triad (gastrointestinal ulceration, thymico-lymphatic atrophy and adrenal hypertrophy) and of the role of the hypothalamus in stimulating the hypophysis, the latter gland, in turn, inducing the adrenals to produce corticoids.
This led directly and indirectly to the discovery of the steroids ACTH, GRH, somatostatin and other hypothalamic and hypophyseal releasing factors and hormones, laying the ground work for future investigation in this area.
Hans Selye also worked as a professor and director of the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Surgery at the Université de Montréal.
During his stay, he showcased the role of emotional responses in creating or fighting much of the wear and tear felt by human beings in their lifespan.
Because of the major role of glucocorticoids (named by Selye), he performed extensive structure-activity studies in the 1930s-1940s, resulting in the first rational classification of steroid hormones, e.g. corticoids, testoids/androgens, and folliculoids/estrogens.
During those years, he recognized the respective anti- and pro-inflammatory actions of gluco- and mineralocorticoids in animal models, several years before demonstration of anti-rheumatic actions of cortisone and adrenocorticotrophic hormones in patients.
Nevertheless, Selye did not receive a Nobel Prize, which was awarded in 1950 to the clinician Hench and the two chemists who isolated and synthesized some of the glucocorticoids. Nonetheless, Selye was internationally recognized as a world authority in endocrinology, steroid chemistry, experimental surgery, and pathology.
He wrote over 1500 original and review articles, singly authored 32 books, and trained 40 PhD students, one of whom (Roger Guillemin) won a Nobel Prize for isolating the hypothalamic releasing factors/hormones.
Here, we consider the main implications of his first article launching the biological stress concept and the key ideas and problems that occupied him.
Dr. Selye published more than 1,700 articles and 39 books on stress.
“The Stress of Life” and “Stress without Distress” were international bestsellers.
His work has been cited in over 362,000 scientific papers.
In addition to his doctorates he held 43 honorary degrees.
He was fluent in at least ten languages.
His honours included Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Honorary Fellow of 68 other scientific societies.
He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada (the highest decoration awarded by the country).
In 1982, he died at the age of seventy-five in Montreal.