‘The Stress of Life: Hans Selye and the Search for Stability’

Mark Jackson
(Director, Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter)

21st November 2007

Since the mid-20th century the notion of stress as a determinant of chronic disease has found acceptance both within psychology and clinical allergy, and within popular culture. The vocabulary of stress has thus achieved a powerful presence in everyday speech as a means of explaining the impact of work, personal history and emotional experience on health. The syndrome which came to be known as ‘stress’ was first described in 1936, by the Hungarian scientist Hans Selye (1907-82). This lecture explores the development and reception of Selye’s theories within the context of post-second world war concerns about international political stability and Selye’s own struggles for personal stability. It then evaluates the legacy of Selye’s formulation of the aetiology of chronic disease.