Stress & the Pituitary-Adrenal Cortical System


A review of Constituting the Stress Response: Collaborative Networks and the Elucidation of the Pituitary-Adrenal Cortical System, 1930s-1960s, by Tulley Long.

In her dissertation, Tulley Long investigates the emergence of a concept that would later become a pathological passe-partout of the post-industrial society: stress. The existing literature on the history of stress can roughly be classified into two categories. The first stems from popular science and considers Hans Selye (1907-1982), a Hungarian-Austrian endocrinologist, the genius inventor of the concept of stress. The second takes a cultural science orientation and focuses on the changing popularity of the stress concept in modern society. The relevant studies deal with issues such as: the social changes of the postwar period (Anne Harrington); self-promotion and popularization (Russell Viner); the history of pharmaceuticals related to the early stress research (Nicolas Rasmussen); and the long tradition of modern concern about stress, stability and control in the face of environmental and social change (Mark Jackson).

Tulley Long builds on this literature but takes a different direction. Her very well-researched and excellently written study focuses on early biochemical and physiological research from the 1930s to the 1960s, when stress was not yet a common term, but an object of scientific investigation and controversy. Integrating aspects of conceptual history and history of science and technology, Long addresses in detail the complex and interdisciplinary venture in endocrine science that aimed to understand the function of the adrenal and pituitary hormones – a venture which not only yielded new drugs (like cortisone) but also new physiological concepts. During the political emergency of the Second World War and the subsequent fears of the Cold War, scientists paid increasing attention to the pituitary-adrenal cortical system as a functional unity responsible for the body’s adaptation to harmful influences and physical strain, and eventually introduced the term “stress” into scientific language. In four chapters, Long treats the constitution, extension and deployment of the pituitary-adrenal cortical axis as the body’s response to stress, paying close attention to the role of interdisciplinary collaboration and the significance of changing tools and techniques.

The first two chapters look at the chemical investigations of the adrenal cortex hormones and the pituitary hormones during the 1930s and early 1940s. Contrary to what the scientists expected, the extract of the adrenal cortex consisted of more than one active pure substance. In order to test the life-sustaining, compensatory effects of the isolated substances, the chemists depended on bioassays. This “marriage of physiology and biochemistry” (p. 39) and – on the institutional level – the cooperation between chemical laboratories and pharmaceutical industries was essential for the description of a number of steroid hormones with slightly different effects. They were closely related in chemical structure, but were divided into two groups according to their mode of action: The salt-active mineralocorticoids, most effective in compensating a deficiency, and the sugar-active glucocorticoids, having the strongest effect on long-term muscle work and on the organism’s adaptation to injuries, infections, intoxication or low pressure. Despite the relevance for clinical practice of the former, the latter became scientifically more important. These corticoids played a major role in the shift from the study of the effect of a single hormone to the study of a feedback mechanism, and from replacement therapy to the prospect of enhancing the body’s performance. The investigation of the function of the anterior pituitary and the isolation of the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), described in Chapter 2, paralleled the work on the adrenal cortex. In 1943 two teams achieved extremely pure extractions of ACTH and thus made it possible to study more closely its influence on the adrenal cortex.

Chapter 3 discusses the merging of adrenal cortex and pituitary research to a concept of feedback regulation and the corresponding transformation of knowledge regarding an organism’s response to environmental challenges. The physiologist Dwight J. Ingle (1907-1978) initiated studies that perceived the relationship between the adrenal cortex and the pituitary as a self-regulating negative feedback mechanism. In this intellectual landscape, Hans Selye, a young histologist at McGill University, postulated that the central function of the pituitary-adrenal endocrine cascade was to act as a response mechanism to nonspecific nocuous agents. He first formulated this “General Adaptation Syndrome” in 1936, published an extensive overview on the subject in 1946 and eventually introduced the word “stress” for the phenomenon. His theory was as much an inspiration as it was a source of controversy. But the adoption of the term “stress” helped to spread the concept into other disciplines and facilitated its popularization.

The fourth and final chapter examines the application of the physiological stress response to the problem of combat stress by the United States military in the 1950s. The downscaling of Selye’s general ideas to a specific strategic issue brought about a shift from the laboratory to the battlefield and the transformation of a biological concept into an object of psychological debate. Again, the search for methods of managing combat stress was a highly interdisciplinary matter. Beyond a simple, linear influence of emotional states on endocrine function, the psychoendocrine studies of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (in Silver Spring, Maryland) emphasized “the many environmental, situational, psychological, and social factors that shaped an individual’s particular emotional and hormonal response to a stimulus” (p. 207f.) – a conception that cleared the way for new approaches to the stress of individuals.

The key insight of Tulley Long’s study is that stress was not a hermetic concept developed by Hans Selye and subsequently popularized during the 1950s and 1960s, but that it was a highly dynamic framework, a result of multi-perspective research approaches within endocrine science, and a product of changing technological settings. The second crucial conclusion is that basic endocrinological research did not merely generate knowledge regarding potential new drugs, but also fostered new scientific models, physiological concepts and issues. The hormones of the pituitary and the adrenal cortex were, as Long writes, themselves “tools […] in furthering physiological research” and the pituitary-adrenal cortical system “was deployed as a promising means of making sense out of complicated problems like combat stress” (p. 7). This dissertation will be of great interest to scholars in the history of medicine, in science studies and in the history of technology.

Lea Haller
Institut für Geschichte
ETH Zürich

Primary Sources

Dwight Joyce Ingle Collection, American Heritage Center Library, University of Wyoming
Edward Calvin Kendall Papers, Princeton University Library
Cyril (Norman Hugh) Long Papers, Library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia
Records of the Office of the President, Ferdinand Hamburger Archives of the Johns Hopkins University

Dissertation Information

Johns Hopkins University. 2011. 246pp. Primary Advisor: Sharon Kingsland.


Image: Bust of Hans Selye at Selye János University (Komárno, Slovakia), Wikimedia Commons.

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