Can stress cause disease? Revisiting the tuberculosis research of Thomas Holmes, 1949-1961

Ann Intern Med. 1996 Apr 1;124(7):673-80. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-124-7-199604010-00008.


The increasing emphasis in medicine on treating the whole patient has focused attention of the association between emotions and disease. However, physicians have long studied the connection between mind and body. One particularly interesting researcher in this area was Thomas Holmes, a charismatic and iconoclastic Seattle physician who studied the association between stress and tuberculosis in the 1950s. Although lacking the sophistication of modern biostatistics, several of Holmes' studies suggested that persons who had experienced stressful situations, such as divorce, death of a spouse, or loss of a job, were more likely to develop tuberculosis and less likely to recover from it. Holmes consciously used the same scientific methods as his peers, devising a numeric scale that quantified stressful events and doing prospective studies with control groups. Yet, he also emphasized the need to understand each patient's story and to view his or her tuberculosis as the culmination of a life of emotional hardship. Although Holmes' work was rudimentary, his basic supposition may have been correct. Recent research, benefiting from advances in both immunology and biostatistics, suggests that stress may lead to decreased immune function and thus to clinical disease. As studies of stress and disease become more statistically sophisticated, it will be important to retain Holmes' emphasis on understanding the lives of individual patients.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Psychosomatic Medicine / history
  • Research / history
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / history*
  • Tuberculosis / history*
  • Tuberculosis / psychology

Personal name as subject

  • T Holmes