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Health Controversies

Hans Selye and "They Just Looked Sick"
Excerpt from the September 2001 issue of The Newsletter of The American Institute of Stress

Exactly what is stress? Although the word has been used in the English language for over four centuries, its current meaning dates back only six decades, when it was essentially "coined" by the brilliant Canadian investigator Hans Selye. Selye, who had entered the German Medical School in Prague at the age of 17, was intrigued that patients suffering from very different diseases often exhibited identical signs and symptoms in the first few days of their illness. They all had low-grade fevers, feelings of malaise, fatigue, generalized aching, and "they just looked sick". He was excited about the possibility of studying the biochemical changes and mechanisms that might be responsible for these common findings since this could possibly lead to some treatment or form of relief and asked if he could study this in the laboratory on weekends or free time. He was told that his request wag so inane it was not worth discussing. If a person is sick, he obviously looks sick, just as if he is fat, he looks fat, and that he should spend his free time studying for his exams.

Selye graduated first in his class, later earned a doctorate in organic chemistry, and because of his obvious talent, received a Rockefeller scholarship in 1931 to study at Johns Hopkins. He had difficulty in adapting to its informal academic attitude and transferred to McGill Medical School in Canada, where things were more European and he could work under the renowned biochemist J.B. Collip. At the time, only two ovarian hormones had been identified, but Professor Collip thought there was a third, and assigned Selye to this research. He was sent to the slaughterhouses with a large bucket and told to retrieve as many cow ovaries as possible. Collip then reduced these to various extracts for Selye to inject into female rats for several days or weeks. The animals would later be autopsied to look for any changes in their sex organs or other tissues that could be attributed to this new ovarian hormone. However, no such effects could be demonstrated. Even worse, most of the rats injected with Collip's new extract became very sick, and some died.

Selye was a meticulous investigator and although autopsy revealed no microscopic changes in the ovaries or breasts, he observed that all of the rats showed ulcerations in the stomach, enlargement of the adrenals, and shrinkage of the thymus and lymphoid tissues. This didn't make any sense at all, and the only explanation he could think of was that these abnormalities were due to some contaminant in Collip's chemical concoction. There was a bottle of formaldehyde, a toxic substance used to fix tissues for microscopic study right in front of him. On a whim, he injected liberal amounts of the solution into several rats, and was amazed to find that this produced results identical to those observed with Collip's new extract.

Selye decide to see what would happen if he injected other toxic chemicals. He found that although they had other effects on different organs and structures, there were always the characteristic changes in the stomach, adrenals, thymus and lymphoid tissues. He wondered whether a noxious physical stimulus would produce these same changes. He exposed rats to the frigid Canadian winter by leaving them on the wind swept roof of the McGill medical building. He put them in a revolving barrel like treadmill driven by an electric motor, so that they had to constantly run to stay upright. Others were dumped into a water barrel so they had to keep swimming to prevent drowning. Sure enough, all that survived after a day or so of this agonizing physical torment showed the same pathology produced with Collip's extract and formaldehyde.

He subsequently demonstrated that severe emotional threats could also do this in experiments that would be impossible to perform today. He sewed back the eyelids of immobilized animals so they would constantly be looking into a very bright light. Others were subjected to continuous deafening and irritating noise, or intense psychological frustration that also bordered on torture. The results were identical. Selye viewed this and the very early symptoms in sick patients he had observed as a medical student as a nonspecific response to what he considered to be "biologic stress".

Paul J. Rosch, M.D., F.A.C.P.
President, The American Institute of Stress
Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry
New York Medical College

The American Institute of Stress publishes many more quality articles in their monthly newsletter Health and Stress. Click here for a table of contents of their magazine from 1994-2001. Click here for information on subscribing and ordering back issues (available from 1988) or email stress125@earthlink.net or call 914-963-1200.

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