According to the Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod, whose richly textured studies of love and loss reflect his own preoccupations with the landscape and history of Nova Scotia, people tend to write about what worries them. It is undoubtedly the case that the focus of this book on stress and stability owes much to my own professional curiosity and personal anxieties. From an intellectual perspective, I first became interested in modern biological formulations of the relationship between stress and disease while I was researching the history of allergy. During the second half of the twentieth century, allergists, clinical ecologists, psychiatrists, and others regularly mobilized the speculative theories of the Hungarian scientist Hans Selye to explain a wide variety of physical and psychological disorders, including adverse reactions to foods and medicines, asthma, arthritis, chronic fatigue, headaches, and depression. In spite of the impact of Selye's work within these and other clinical settings, there were few historical studies of how stress came to occupy a relatively prominent position in modern accounts of disease and unhappiness. The original academic aim of this book was to address precisely that question.
At the same time, it is possible to explain the genesis of this book in more personal terms. My own life has been plagued, or perhaps on occasion blessed, with a familiar catalogue of stresses and strains (or what twentieth-century psychologists liked to refer to as ‘life events’ or ‘daily hassles’), all of which have left identifiable physical and psychological scars. Over the years, I have struggled at times to cope with the consequences of parental divorce, profound mental and physical ill health, the miraculous challenges of marriage and parenthood, the pressures of overwork, and increasingly the spectre of death and despair that eventually haunts us all. These experiences have not only significantly shaped my mind and body, but also generated a peculiar thirst to comprehend and more effectively manage the alternating exhilaration and despondency created by the stress of life. The argument presented here is, therefore, in some ways merely the rational expression of a deeply intuitive, and perhaps deluded, quest for psychosomatic health and stability.
This book has also survived its own particular species of stress; indeed, it was very nearly the fatal victim of the extreme environmental instability that appears to be a feature of the modern world. During the arctic conditions of December 2010, in the middle of the sabbatical period during which much of this book was written, a burst valve in the heating system released gallons of water through our home, ruining the study (including many of the books and archival papers on which the argument presented in these pages rests), destroying two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and the kitchen, hall and landing, and forcing us into rented accommodation for six months while repairs were effected. Over the last year or so, I have endeavoured to heal, or at least conceal, the fault lines that temporarily fragmented my life and work. Any remaining flaws in the fabric of this book are the product of my own limited resilience under stress.
(p.viii) My pursuit of cognitive and emotional contentment in the face of both acute and chronic adversity has been aided and abetted by generous colleagues and friends. I am deeply grateful to the Wellcome Trust for funding the research on which this book is based, to Christopher Wheeler, Stephanie Ireland, and Emma Barber at Oxford University Press for their constructive feedback and advice at all stages of the book's development, to Rowena Anketell for copy-editing, to Angela Anstey-Holroyd and Linda Smith for proofreading, and to colleagues at the University of Exeter for their continued support. I am also indebted to many scholars who have shared their time and work with me or directed me towards new sources and ideas, in particular Istvan Berczi, Ian Burney, Steve Brown, John Burnham, David Cantor, Jessa Chupik, Elizabeth Cumming, Barbara Douglas, Otniel Dror, David Fernandez, Ali Haggett, Rhodri Hayward, Rusten Hogness, Edgar Jones, Emese Lafferton, Stafford Lightman, David Lomas, Beverley Pearson Murphy, Suzanne Newcombe, Andrew Pickering, Ed Ramsden, Peter Dale Scott, Sally Shuttleworth, Matt Smith, Ted Sourkes, Esther Trépanier, John Wilkins, and Allan Young. While researching in Canada, I was privileged to be able to interview friends, colleagues, and relatives of Hans Selye, particularly Cathy Drew, Milagros Salas-Prato, Beatriz Tuchweber, Louise Drevet Selye, and Ovid da Silva, all of whom graciously donated their time and knowledge. Diane Baillargeon, Monique Voyer, and Caroline Duclos of the Division of Records Management and Archives at the University of Montreal, Jessica B. Murphy in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard, Niki Russell of the Special Collections Department in the Library at the University of Glasgow, Phyllis Smith at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, and a number of archivists and librarians at McGill University, Montreal, and Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, all procured, and patiently led me through, myriad documentary and visual sources relating to the work of Walter Cannon, Hans Selye, Marian Dale Scott, and their colleagues.
I am grateful to the following sources for permission to reproduce the illustrations. Figure 1 is reproduced courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London. Figure 2 is reproduced by permission of Chris Lund/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-116671. Figure 3 is reproduced from Hans Selye, ‘The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation’, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, 6 (1946), 117–230. Figure 4, Marian Dale Scott's ‘Study for the mural Endocrinology’, gouache on paper, 27 × 46 cm, photographer Patrick Altman, is provided by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and reproduced by kind permission of Peter Dale Scott. Figure 5 is reproduced from Hans Selye, Textbook of Endocrinology (Montreal, Acta Endocrinologica, 1949), 857, courtesy of the Hans Selye Foundation. Figure 6 is provided by Library and Archives Canada and is reproduced by kind permission of Anne Scotton, Marian Scott's literary executor. Figure 7 is reproduced from Hans Selye and Claude Fortier, ‘Adaptive reactions to stress’, in Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Diseases, Life Stress and Bodily Disease (Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins, 1950), 4. Figure 8 is reproduced from Harold G. Wolff, Stress and Disease (Springfield, Ill., Charles C. (p.ix) Thomas, 1953), 54, courtesy of Charles C. Thomas. Figure 9 is reproduced by kind permission of The Advertising Archives. Figures 10 and 12, both provided by the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, are reproduced by kind permission of Solo Syndication and NI Syndication respectively. I am grateful to Milagros Salas-Prato and the Hans Selye Foundation for permission to reproduce Figure 11, Hans Selye's diagram, ‘Coping with stress’. Figure 13, available in Library and Archives Canada, is © Canada Post Corporation (2000), reproduced with permission.
According to recent psychological and spiritual studies of health and happiness, insulation from the wear and tear of life often takes the form of friends and family, who provide what Alvin Toffler referred to as a ‘personal stability zone’. In my own case, comfort is certainly always at home. Although I do not subscribe wholeheartedly to Hans Selye's natural philosophy of life, based as it is on a relatively naive and problematic biological analogy, I have nevertheless learned that, as Seneca suggested approximately two thousand years ago, happiness resides in living for others. It is evident to all those who know me that only Siobhán, Ciara, Riordan, and Conall inhabit the secret places of my heart. This book and my boundless love, however, are dedicated in particular to Siobhán, whose life exemplifies the text: ‘Nor can anyone live happily who has regard to himself alone and who turns everything to his own advantage. You must live for another, if you wish to live for yourself.’