Dr. Weeks’ Comment: Professor Evans in West Virginia, a kindred soul whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting face to face, shares a lovely wavelength with me this morning. And so I share it with you! I enjoy these quotations of his:
“The element of chance in basic research is overrated. Chance is a lady who smiles only upon those few who know how to make her smile.”
“Make sure that both the stress level and the goal are really your own, and not imposed upon you by society…”
From Professor Evans:
It’s the birthday (26 Jan) of Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye, born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (1907). When his discovery came about, Selye was just another bright 28-year-old assistant in the Biochemistry Department at McGill University, conducting tests on rats. Specifically, he was injecting rats with extracts of various organs. When he used ovarian extract, the rats developed certain symptoms, including bleeding ulcers and enlarged adrenal cortexes. Selye was thrilled, convinced that he had discovered a new ovarian hormone. But the same thing happened when he introduced extract from the placenta, and then various other organs, and finally the extract of a toxic liquid — so he knew it couldn’t be a hormone, which would be produced by a specific part of the body. He was totally confused. He said, “I became so depressed that for a few days I just sat in my laboratory, brooding about how this misadventure might have been avoided and wondering what was to be done now.”
Selye reflected back on his days as a 19-year-old medical student at the University of Prague. He had been surprised that so many patients exhibited similar, general symptoms — loss of appetite, aches, rashes, or fevers — before they were eventually diagnosed with specific diseases. He was intrigued by what he called “the syndrome of just being sick.” He explained this to his advisor, who laughed it off. Selye said: “Since these were my first patients, I was still capable of looking at them without being biased by current medical thought. Had I known more, I would never have asked myself questions.”
Ten years later, in the lab at McGill, he did know more; but as he thought about those patients and their symptoms from “just being sick,” he wondered whether this was similar to what he observed in the rats. He also thought about how there were certain general things that doctors prescribed, like rest and eating well, that helped with a wide variety of diseases. He guessed that the body had some general response to “noxious agents” placed on it, and that all illnesses caused the body to issue this general response. He called this theory the “General Adaptation Syndrome,” and published his findings in 1936 in the journal Nature.
Selye chose the word “stress” to describe the general bodily responses to noxious agents. He was eventually fluent in eight languages and proficient in several more. But at the time he chose the word “stress,” he wasn’t quite fluent in English. He didn’t understand the use of the word “stress” in physics, where “stress” is the force on an object per unit area, whereas “strain” is the measurement of how an object responds to stress. For years afterward, Selye said that if only he had understood the complexities of English better, he would have chosen the word “strain” instead of “stress.” But by that time it was too late, and the word “stress” was adopted not just in English but in many other languages as well; because there was no appropriate translation, other languages just used the English word “stress.” Selye devoted the rest of his life to studying stress and its effects on the human body. He usually worked 10 to 14 hours a day, every day, including weekends and holidays. He wrote several books, including The Stress of Life(1956) and Stress without Distress (1974).
Selye said: “The element of chance in basic research is overrated. Chance is a lady who smiles only upon those few who know how to make her smile.”
And: “Find your own stress level — the speed at which you can run toward your own goal. Make sure that both the stress level and the goal are really your own, and not imposed upon you by society, for only you yourself can know what you want and how fast you can accomplish it. There is no point in forcing a turtle to run like a racehorse or in preventing a racehorse from running faster than a turtle because of some ‘moral obligation.’ The same is true of people.”