How the Tobacco Industry Shaped the Science of Stress

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The modern idea of stress began on a rooftop in Canada, with a handful of rats freezing in the winter wind. This was 1936 and by that point the owner of the rats, an endocrinologist named Hans Selye, had become expert at making rats suffer for science.…

What was interesting to Selye was that no matter how different the tortures he devised for the rats were — from icy winds to painful injections — when he cut them open to examine their guts it appeared that the physical effects of his different tortures were always the same.

So opens a remarkable story by Alix Spiegel about the science of stress. The work of Hans Selye — truly a monumental stack compiled during the middle third of the 20th century — remains foundational in stress studies. But as Spiegel relates, this work also shows how readily science gets infused with other cultural forces of its time. In this case, Selye’s stress work ended up shaped, weirdly enough, by both the tobacco industry, which funded a lot of Selye’s work, and the psychological concept of the Type A personality.

How so? The tobacco industry managed to exploit the idea of the Type A personality in two ways: first, by blaming Type-A personality stress for heart disease and cancer that was actually caused by cigarettes; and second (you have to almost admire this judolike maneuver) by recommending cigarettes as a way to ease that stress. Cigarettes thus became not only a cure for what supposedly ailed the Type A man — but a status symbol of the drive that would make him successful. And Selye was complicit; he let the industry vet some of his papers.

Get the full juice from Spiegel, who’s one of the best, and in fine form here.

via The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress : Shots – Health News : NPR.