Cannon, Walter Bradford

views updated May 17 2018


(b. Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 19 October 1871; d. Franklin, New Hampshire, 1 October I945)


Cannon was the only son of Colbert Hanchett Cannon and Sarah Wilma Denio. His father, a railroad worker, and his mother, a schoolteacher, were descendants of early American settlers. The Denio line began with the marriage of Abigail Stebbins to a French-Canadian coureur de bois,. Jacques de Noyen, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704; the first of the Cannons (Samuel Carnahan) sailed to Boston from Ulster Province, Ireland, in 1718. Cannon’s birthplace was the site of Fort Crawford, where, in the 1820’s, William Beaumont made his classic observations on gastric function in his patient with a permanent gastric fistula, Alexis St. Martin. Cannon attended primary and grammar-schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and St. Paul, Minnesota. When Cannon was fourteen, his father, disappointed by his lack of diligence, put him to work in a railroad office, where he remained for two dull years. When he returned to high school, he completed the four-year course in three, was valedictorian and editor of the school paper, and then took a postgraduate year to prepare for college examinations. An extraordinary teacher of English literature at St. Paul High School, Miss M. J. Newson, persuaded Cannon to apply to Harvard College, and helped secure financial aid for him. On his departure for Cambridge in 1892 Cannon was given $100 by his father; this, plus a later gift of $80, was the sole help his father was able to provide during the rest of his educational career. His expense accounts were meticulously kept to the penny, as were the accounts relating to income from monitoring, tutoring, and. later, student assistantships.

Cannon’s undergraduate days at Harvard were full and exciting. He was particularly attracted to the biological sciences and did extremely well in his course work. He took no mathematics while in college, however, and only two courses in chemistry. These decisions he later regretted. He graduated summa cum laude in 1896 with twenty-two courses to his credit. Two were research courses; and because of extra work done and the advanced character of some of it. Cannon was granted the M.A. degree in 1897. Among his most influential teachers were the philosopher and psychologist William James, the psychologist Hugo Munster-berg, the zoologist George H. Parker, and Charles B. Davenport, with whom he wrote his first research paper. “On the Determination of the Direction and Rate of Movement of Organisms by Light.” While a student at Harvard College he became interested in neurology and psychology, interests that were continued in medical school.

Cannon may have preferred to study at the Johns Hopkins Medical School; but when his letter to Dean William H. Welch concerning financial assistance went unanswered, he enrolled in the Harvard Medical School. His studies with Davenport had provided his first insight into the nature of research, and led him into the physiology laboratory when he was a first-year student of medicine in the autumn of 1896. Henry P. Bowditch, then professor of physiology, suggested that Albert Moser, a second-year student who had likewise expressed a wish to undertake investigation, and Cannon should use the recently discovered X rays to examine the mechanism of swallowing. Thus, on 9 December 1896, less than a year after Rontgen made his announcement at Wurzburg, Cannon first used X rays for the study of gastrointestinal motility. Cannon described the first demonstration, which was made on apparatus supplied by Ernest Amory Codman and set up in the small prosector’s room in the anatomy department of the Medical School at the comer of Boylston and Exeter Streets.

It was thought best to try first a small dog as a subject, and I was commissioned to get a card of globular pearl buttons for the dog to swallow. Dr. [Thomas] Dwight, Professor of Anatomy. Dr. Bowditch. Dr. Codman and I were the only witnesses. We placed a fluorescent screen over the dog’s esophagus, and with the greenish light of the tube shining below we watched the glow of the fluorescent surface. Everyone was keyed up with tense excitement. It was my function to place the pearl button as far back as possible in the dog’s throat so that he would swallow it. Nothing was seen! As intensity of our interest increased someone exploded: “Button, button, who’s got the button?” We all broke out in a sort of hysterical laughter.1

Several days later, recalling Rontgen’s observations that salts of heavy metals obstructed the passage of X rays. Cannon and Moser watched the passage of gelatin capsules filled with bismuth sub-nitrate in the frog and the goose. At the meeting of the American Physiological Society in Boston, 29 December 1896, the phenomena of deglutition, as exhibited by the goose when swallowing, were informally demonstrated to the members by means of the Rontgen rays. This was the first public demonstration of movements of the alimentary tract by the use of the new method.

As a student Cannon was an innovator not only in research but also in medical education. In the late 1890’s he and his fellow students were subjected to four hours of continuous lectures, from two to six o’clock, five days a week. Little wonder that he questioned whether the didactic lecture was “the most satisfactory and effectual method of drilling the mind to careful thought in diagnosis and prognosis,” or whether lectures were the most economical use of the students’ time in “these days of the crowded curriculum.” Either the student sat as a passive listener, he noted, or took notes so assiduously that he had no time to think.

Cannon had envied the eagerness and zest with which his roommate, a Harvard law student, and his classmates discussed cases and their implications, a method of instruction introduced by Christopher C. Langdell. He wrote:

Undoubtedly the most brilliant example thus far of the use of cases in education is seen in the study of law. The change from text-book to the case system wrought out in the Harvard Law School has been called America’s greatest contribution to educational reform. The newer method has roused an ardor and keenness of interest among students as was never known before. They learn their law not by dreary grubbing at text–books or lecture notes, but by vigorously “threshing out a case” with one another. And for its method and for its results the Harvard Law School is regarded by competent observers as perhaps the foremost centre of legal education in the English-speaking world.2

In 1900 Cannon adapted the case system for medicine, with printed data from actual case histories gathered from the various hospitals. These data, he suggested, were to be studied and analyzed by the students, and then discussed in detail at a conference with the instructor. He added, “To these cases the students can bring all their knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pathology and therapeutics, these subjects, which are now more like separate packets in the mind than related parts of a single system”–an early plea for integrated medical education. Much to the credit of the faculty, the case method was quickly and enthusiastically adopted by the various departments of the Medical School.

During his last year of medical school, Cannon was an instructor in zoology at Harvard College and taught comparative vertebrate anatomy, a course in which he had been an undergraduate assistant. When Cannon graduated, William Townsend Porter, who had assumed more and more responsibility for the teaching of physiology as Bow-ditch neared retirement, urged President Charles Eliot to make Cannon an instructor of physiology. Cannon accepted the position, and was promoted to assistant professor in 1902 with Porter’s strong backing. The students were most appreciative of Cannon’s teaching ability and, at the same time, became increasingly critical of Porter’s. In 1904 a group protested the large number of failures in physiology, which they attributed to Porter. Thus, when Cannon received a call from Cornell Medical School in 1906, President Eliot decided to have him succeed Bowditch as George Higginson professor and chairman of the department; Porter became professor of comparative physiology. Cannon’s appointment caused a rift with Porter and they remained estranged until 1937, when Cannon, as a member of the Council of the American Physiological Society, helped arrange for Porter to be named honorary president of the Society on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Cannon remained chairman of the physiology department for thirty-six years and retired in 1942.

When Cannon joined the department of physiology, he continued his studies on gastrointestinal motility, using the fluoroscope as his principal tool. This pioneering research, done with a series of collaborators, examined the nature of swallowing, gastric peristalsis, the time of passage for different foodstuffs out of the stomach into the duodenum. control of the pylorus, and peristalsis of the small intestine. In 1911 Cannon summarized this experimental work in The Mechanical Factors of Digestion.

Cannon’s early physiological research not only laid the groundwork for the development of gastrointestinal radiology but had other consequences as well. In 1908, following a savage antivivisectionist attack on the Rockefeller Institute, the American Medical Association organized a special Defense Committee in Support of Medical Research and, because of his growing eminence as an experimental physiologist, appointed Cannon as chairman. In so doing it put Cannon in the forefront of the struggle against antivivisection–a struggle in which he directed the strategy for the next eighteen years. The tenets that guided Cannon in that struggle were made explicit by him in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association soon after he took office. They were not solely a defense. They were, in fact, a ringing affirmation of the right of medical research and experimentation.

In the first place the investigators object to any step tending to check the use of animals for medical research. They maintain that such interference is not justified by the present treatment of the experimental animal. They declare that the imagined horrors of medical research do not exist. . . . Only the moral degenerate is capable of inflicting the torment that the anti-vivisectionist imagines. No one who is acquainted with the leaders in medical research who are responsible for the work done in the laboratories can believe for a moment that they are moral degenerates. The medical investigators further maintain that judgement should be based on knowledge not ignorance. They rightly insist that their critics are ignorant –ignorant of the conditions of medical research and ignorant of the complex relations of the medical sciences to medical and surgical practice and they contend that these critics in their ignorance are endeavoring to stop that experimental study of physiology and pathology.3

While Cannon’s research did not develop in a linear fashion, it did develop logically, often on the basis of chance observations that other investigators might have ignored. During his investigations on the mechanical factors of digestion, Cannon noticed that the movement of the stomach and intestines of his experimental animals ceased when they were emotionally excited. These observations stimulated Cannon to study the effect of strong emotions on bodily functions and disease states – studies that led to an examination of the sympathetic nervous system. Between 1911 and 1915 Cannon developed the concept of the emergency function of the sympathetic nervous system, which he later synthesized in his Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. Despite the general acceptance of Cannon’s research by physiologists, some of his concepts stirred controversy. George N. Stewart and Julius M. Rogoff, for example, sharply attacked Cannon’s view of the emergency functioning of the adrenal medulla, maintaining that the organ secreted its hormone continuously. Despite the vigor of the attack, Cannon was ultimately able to sustain his view that the secretion of the adrenal medulla was much increased under emergency situations, such as those created by pain, cold, emotional stress, asphyxia, or injury.

In the fall of 1916, before the United States entered World War I, the National Research Council named Cannon a member of a committee on traumatic shock. Later he joined the Harvard University Hospital Unit. On his way to France in May 1917, he stopped in London and arranged with Fletcher, first secretary of the Medical Research Committee, to join the group of physicians and surgeons of the British Expeditionary Forces who were dealing with shock cases at the Casualty Clearing Station at Béthune. The following summer the Medical Research Committee formed a Shock Committee and E. H. Starling, H. H. Dale, W. M. Bayliss, T. R. Elliott, F. A. Bainbridge. John Fraser, and W. B. Cannon were named members. Cannon worked with Bayliss in his London laboratory in the winter of 1917–1918, and later was director of a surgical research laboratory attached to the Central Medical Department of the American Expeditionary Forces at Dijon. Initially Cannon and his associates in the field concentrated their therapeutic efforts on treating the acidosis that accompanies shock. Later they recognized that the acidosis was merely a secondary phenomenon, the result of the inadequacy of tissue perfusion. In 1923 Cannon summarized his wartime experience in Traumatic Shock.

After the war Cannon returned to investigations on the sympathetic nervous system and developed the denervated heart as an indicator of sympathetic activity. In 1921, at the same time that Otto Loewi was demonstrating the transmission of peripheral effects of the vagus nerve by a chemical mediator. Cannon and Joseph Uridil reported the acceleration of the denervated heart when the hepatic nerves were stimulated, even after the adrenal glands were extirpated. As Henry Dale noted, “Similar effects at a distance, transmitted by the circulation, were later recognized by Cannon and his colleagues as the result of stimulating other sympathetic nerves; and it seems clear that he had not been far from the discovery which later gained Loewi the Nobel Prize.”4

Cannon’s extraordinary manual dexterity and surgical skill enabled him to remove the entire sympathetic nervous system, a procedure that gradually led to the development of his ideas concerning the maintenance of steady states in the internal environment or fluid matrix of the body. In a series of studies continuing for almost a decade. Cannon showed that the function of the autonomic nervous system is the maintenance of a uniform condition in the body fluids, an elaboration of Claude Bernard’s concept of the constancy of the milieu intérieur. Cannon later employed the specific designation “homeostasis” (from the Greek homeos, “like or similar” and stasis “condition”) for these states. It is not clear when the concept of self-regulation of physiological processes first occurred to Cannon. In the preface to his Wisdom of the Body (1932), which summarized his investigations of homeostasis. Cannon noted:

That relation was only slowly disclosed. Indeed, not a few researches on the service of the autonomic in providing for stability of the organism had been completed and published before the connection of that system with regulatory arrangements was clearly understood. We found that we had long been working on the role of the autonomic system in maintaining steady stales without realizing that we were doing so! New facts already discovered took on new significance.

The studies that Cannon began with M. A. McIver and S. W. Bliss on the sympathetic and adrenal mechanism for mobilizing sugar in hypoglycemia induced by insulin (1923) may well have been seminal for the development of the concept of homeostasis. In an extension of this work published in American Journal of Physiology (1924), Cannon and his associates ended their paper with a theme that was later repeated for other physiological functions: “The mechanism here described is another remarkable example of autonomic adjustments within the organism when there is a disturbance endangering its equilibrium.” At a meeting of the Congrèss of American Physicians in 1925, Cannon further elaborated this theme by presenting six propositions regarding physiological factors maintaining steady states in the body. It was not until the following year, however, that Cannon gave a name to his concept, in a modest paper entitled “Physiological Regulation of Normal States: Some Tentative Postulates Concerning Biological Homeostatics.”(5) In 1929 Cannon published an exhaustive analysis of the problem of homeostasis in Physiological Reviews. This paper not only examined the homeostatic regulation of water and sodium chloride balance, glucose, protein, fat, and calcium but also reviewed the role of the autonomic nervous system in homeostasis and the homeostatic functions of hunger, thirst, maintenance of body neutrality, and uniform temperature. Cannon’s closing statement, “that regulation in the organism is the central problem of physiology,” was to have a profound influence on biological research.

Ironically, save for a popularization of the concept of homeostasis in Wisdom of the Body (1932) and the chapter “Ageing of Homeostatic Mechanisms” for E. V. Cowdry’s Problems of Ageing (1939). Cannon did little more research on homeostasis. Instead, beginning in the 1930’s, he and his collaborators, who included Z. M. Bacq and Arturo Rosenblueth, devoted themselves to the study of chemical transmission of nerve impulses and made pioneering advances in the field. The early synthesis of this research by Cannon and Rosen–blueth. Autonomic Neuro-Effector Systems (1937). with its theoretical hypothesis of the existence of two sympathins. one excitatory and the other inhibitory, was critically received. Today, on the basis of Ulf von Euler’s research, we know that they were in fact dealing with epinephrine and norepinephrine.

Despite his deep involvement in science. Cannon believed strongly that the scientist was also a citizen and, as a citizen, had an obligation to defend freedom. In his view freedom was an essential element for productive scholarship. His belief in the brotherhood of man and the universality of science took Cannon to the Peking Union Medical College in 1935, and subsequently involved him in the formation of the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy, as well as in the organization of the American-Soviet Medical Society, the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China, and the United China Relief. Since these activities engendered much political controversy, they deserve fuller examination.

Cannon’s work on digestion was responsible for his long and continuing interest in Russia, especially in the school of physiology sired by Pavlov. Initially Cannon and Pavlov came to know each other because of the similarity of the research in which they engaged. At the beginning of their friendship, they exchanged letters and papers but did not meet. In 1923, before an International Physiological Congrèss in Scotland, Pavlov, in response to Cannon’s written entreaties, visited the Unitted States. In 1929 Pavlov returned to the United States to attend the International Physiological Congrèss, held in Boston. Although there were many extraordinary events at this Congrèss, including Cannon’s display of animals that had survived complete sympathectomy, the hero of the Congrèss was certainly Pavlov. In 1935 the two physiologists cemented their friendship further when Cannon visited Moscow to attend the fifteenth International Physiological Congrèss. On this occasion Cannon dominated the Congrèss, not because of the paper he presented but because of his prefatory statement on the relation of freedom to scientific research:

During the last few years, how profoundly and unexpectedly the world has changed. Nationalism has become violently intensified until it is tainted with bitter feeling. Governments whose strength seemed deeply rooted in fixed traditions have vanished like phantoms only to be replaced by strange new forms and agents. The world wide economic depression has greatly reduced the material support for scholarly efforts. In consequence lameness is already at hand and paralysis is threatening. Creative investigators of high international repute have been degraded and subjected to privations. Some universities have been closed. Others have been deprived of their ideal social function of providing a sanctuary for scholars where the search for truth is free and untrammeled. and where novel ideas are welcome and evaluated. As scientific investigators commonly associate with universities, these conditions have serious meaning for all of us. That raises questions which are insistent and searching. What is the social value of the physiologist or the biochemist? What conditions promote and what hinder his best uses to society? Do these conditions now prevail? If not what care should be taken to protect them lest they be lost or forgotten?

The prescience and wisdom of Cannon’s remarks have been forgotten, and he is often portrayed as naive in political matters. Cannon well understood the Soviet Union as a social experiment; and while he applauded Soviet governmental support of science, he did not overlook the harsher aspects of Soviet politics. When someone questioned some of the commendatory public statements he made about the Soviet Union in 1935, Cannon replied.

During my stay in the Soviet Union I found myself oscillating between admiration for the ideas and achievements of the group in control of the vast social experiment which is being tried there and a sickening horror and repulsion because of tales which I heard from American and British sources of gross cruelties and injustices perpetrated on persons who were not given any reason for the treatment they received. There is no question whatever regarding the verity of these reports . . . . It is inconceivable to me that the unjust treatment of human beings should go on in such a harsh and cruel form as it takes. The extraordinary fact is that the present rulers are using the same sort of treatment against which their predecessors protested with utter disregard of their safety and indeed of their lives, in order to overthrow it.6.

It was the comment of a critical friend who not only continued amicable relations with Soviet physiologists but also sought to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States through wider exchange of information. In 1937 he was offered the presidency of the American Russian Institute, which he refused. While Cannon’s refusal was in large measure based on the limited time at his disposal, it is also clear that he wished to avoid daily political polemics. Nevertheless, he continued to express himself vigorously and critically on the Soviet Union in conferences, articles in popular magazines, and book reviews. With the outbreak of World War II, Cannon joined Hugh Cabot in organizing the Massachusetts chapter of the Committee for Russian War Relief–an act that brought harsh criticism from conservative members of the Boston medical community, who whispered darkly of Communist sympathies of the two independent members. In 1943. at the request of Henry Sigerist, Cannon became president of the American-Soviet Medical Society, the purpose of which was to organize the exchange and dissemination of medical information between the two countries.

In many respects Cannon’s interest in Spain was motivated by the same concerns that shaped his interest in Russia: an abiding concern with the development of science and a humanitarian’s ideal of aiding the weak and oppressed. Cannon recognized that one of the major forces of oppression and direct threat to scientific development was the rising tide of Nazism.

Cannon had strong ties with the medical and scientific community in Spain. Some colleagues, like R. Carrasco-Formiguera and Jaime Pi Suner, had trained with him in physiology at Harvard. Others, like Georges Maranon and Juan Negrin. he met. and established friendships with, during his visit to Spain in 1930. That visit marked the beginning of Cannon’s direct interest in Spain. When Alfonso XIII was overthrown in 1931, Cannon saw that political victory as a triumph of freedom and republican ideals, and wrote to Negrin that he hoped this new turn in Spanish politics augured well for Negrin’s concept of a new national university, When Franco began a counterrevolution against the Spanish Republic in 1936, Cannon joined a group of distinguished American physicians in organizing the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. The purpose of this new organization, as Cannon saw it, was perhaps best expressed in a letter he wrote to A. S. Begg of the Boston University School of Medicine in November 1937:

As you probably know there is an organization known as the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. Since near the beginning of the year I have been National Chairman of the organization. Its sponsors include [Anton] Carlson of Chicago. Haven Emerson of Columbia, Adolph Meyer and ǀHenry] Sigerist of Johns Hopkins, [Frederick A.] Coller and [Louis Harry] Newburgh of the University of Michigan, William H. Park of New York, [Joseph] Erlan–ger, Evarts Graham and Leo Loeb of Washington University, C. E. A. Winslow of Yale, Florence Sa-bin of the Rockefeller Institute and others. My interest in the organization was really based on an experience which I had in 1930 when I met the university group in Barcelona and Madrid and heard open talk of a republic in Spain. I was entertained by Juan Negrin then Professor of Physiology at the Medical School in Madrid. Ever since then I have kept in touch with him and now, as you know, he is Premier of Spain. The Medical Bureau has no political aims, it is not a propagandist organization, its purposes are strictly humanitarian. You know as well as I do that war is worse than pestilence and all sorts of privations and miseries which involve not only combatants but innocent non combatants–old men, women and children. . . . Of course in addition to these distresses there are the dreadful wounds of warfare with the long attention which they often demand of the victims of war. It is in an effort to lessen these miseries of pains I have attempted to serve the Medical Bureau.

Cannon’s activities on behalf of the Medical Bureau embroiled him in some of his most bitter political controversies. The Spanish Civil War divided Americans, and there can be little doubt that many in the United States were deeply affected by the common charge that the Loyalist government of Negrin was Communistic. Some newspapers and journals in New England declared that the Medical Bureau “was a communist organization with headquarters in Russia” and that Cannon himself was not only a Communist but godless as well. Despite the obloquy heaped on him. Cannon continued to work tirelessly on behalf of medical aid to Loyalist Spain, organizing the medical community, speaking at innumerable rallies, and using the prestige of his name to collect medical supplies and, more especially, to persuade drug companies to send insulin and nicotinic acid to Spain to aid victims of diabetes and pellagra. When in 1937 the State Department blocked nurses and physicians from offering their services to the Loyalist government by requiring them to swear, before receiving their passports, that they would not enter Spain. Cannon joined in a protest of intellectuals that led to a change in that policy.

With Franco’s victory. Cannon directed his efforts to rescuing scientists and physicians who fought for the Republic, and to finding posts for them in American and South American universities. As the 1930’s drew to a close, these activities broadened to include physicians and scientists ousted or imprisoned by the Nazis in Germany and Austria, and Chinese scientists uprooted by the war with Japan. It was not only compassion that moved Cannon: he saw the rescue of the scientific victims of fascism as necessary for the further development of science and the preservation of its humanistic ideals.

With the advent of World War II, Cannon once more devoted himself to the problems of shock, this time not as an investigator but as chairman of the Committee on Shock and Transfusion of the National Research Council. In this capacity he saw Edwin J. Cohn and his associates develop methods of blood fractionation and blood preservation that later proved to be extraordinarily important in the prevention and treatment of shock.

In 1942 Cannon retired from Harvard Medical School. Although he subsequently was visiting professor at the New York University Medical School (1944) and did research with Arturo Ro-senblueth in Mexico City (1945), he was in failing health. His illness was directly related to his early research. In 1931 it was discovered that Cannon was suffering from mycosis fungoides. a neoplastic disease that was the result of overexposure to the X rays he had used in research on digestion. He bore his affliction with great stoicism. On 1 October 1945, only eighteen days short of his seventy-fourth birthday, he succumbed to the disease.

When Cannon died he had received many honors. Although he never was awarded a Nobel Prize, his work was recognized by election to a number of learned societies, including the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society. He was a valued member and officer of more than a score of professional associations and received numerous medals, honorary degrees, and lectureships. He was treasurer of the American Physiological Society from 1905 to 1912, and president from 1914 to 1916. Honors and recognition aside, one of the best evaluations of Cannon’s career was made by Chandler McC. Brooks, Kuyomi Koizumi, and James O. Pinkston on the centenary celebration of his birth, held at the Downstate Medical Center of the State University of New York in 1971–1972:

Cannon was one of the first to use X-rays, but no one considered him to be a radiologist. He made major discoveries in the field of gastroenterology, but he was not considered a gastroenterologist. He contributed as much to our knowledge of the autonomic nervous system as any man, but he was not thought of as a neurophysiologist. In much of his work on transmitters he employed drugs to facilitate and drugs to block chemical actions, yet he was not a pharmacologist. Certainly he did much research relative to the function of the endocrine glands, but he is not considered to have been an endocrinologist. His work on emotional expression has been of great interest to psychologists and behaviorists, yet he was not classified as either. His studies of homeostasis, reactions to stress, the means used by the body to maintain required balances as well as his studies of traumatic shock qualify him to be a physician of major attainment. He was always considered to be a physiologist, no other title would suffice.7


1. Letter from Walter B. Cannon to John F. Fulton, 16 Apr. 1942.

2. W. B. Cannon. “The Case Method of Teaching Systematic Medicine.” in Boston Medical and Surgical Journal,142 (1900), 31–36. 563–564.

3. W. B. Cannon. “The Opposition to Medical Research,” in Journal of the American Medical Association,51 (1908). 635–646.

4. H. H. Dale. “Walter Bradford Cannon,” in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London5 (1947), 407–423.

5. W. B. Cannon. “Physiological Regulation of Normal States: Some Tentative Postulates Concerning Biological Homeostatics,” in Jubilee Volume for Charles Richet (Paris, 1926), 91–93.

6. Letter from Walter B. Cannon to Harry Freeman. 20 Sept. 1935.

7. C. McC. Brooks. K. Koizumi, and J. O. Pinkston, eds., The Life and Contributions of Walter Bradford Cannon (New York. 1975). xx.


I. Original Works A complete bibliography of Cannon’s work is in The Life and Contributions of Walter Bradford Cannon . . . (New York, 1975), 73–94. Cannon and his collaborators were prolific writers. Fortunately, at frequent intervals Cannon summarized the work he and his associates had been doing, and tried to assess the significance of the studies in relation to integrative physiology and medicine. Among his books were The Mechanical Factors of Digestion (London, 1911); Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage (New York-London, 1915); Traumatic Shock (New York–London, 1923); The Wisdom of the Body (New York, 1932); Digestion and Health (New York, 1936); Autonomic Neuro–Effector Systems (New York, 1937), written with A. Rosenblueth; The Body as a Guide to Politics (London, 1942): The Way of an Investigator (New York. 1945); and The Supersensitivity of Denervated Structures (New York. 1949). written with A. Rosenblueth.

The Walter B. Cannon Archive in the Countway Library of the Harvard Medical School is the major repository of the letters, diaries, notebooks, MSS, and memorabilia. The collection, which contains 164 boxes of correspondence, is a valuable source of information on the development of physiology in the first half of the twentieth century. It also reflects Cannon’s deep involvement in numerous scientific organizations and his role as a concerned and courageous citizen.

II. Secondary Literature No full-length biography of Cannon has been published. The Life and Contributions of Walter Bradford Cannon 1871 – 1945) (see above), which contains papers delivered at a centennial symposium on Cannon’s influence on the development of physiology in the twentieth century, is an extensive review of the significance of his scientific contributions by former colleagues and others in his field of interest, and includes personal reminiscences by his son. Bradford Cannon. The esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries at Harvard and by others is evident in the commemorative volume Walter Bradford Cannon: Exercises Celebrating Twenty–five Years as George Higginson Professor of Physiology, Oct. 15, 1931 (Cambridge, Mass., 1932). Biographical sketches of Cannon, listed chronologically, include W. J. Meek, “An Appreciation of Walter B. Cannon.” in Texas Reports on Biology and Medicine,11 (1953). 24–45; J. Mayer, “Walter Bradford Cannon. A Biographical Sketch” in Journal of Nutrition,87 (1965), 1–8; and J. Garland. “Walter Bradford Cannon: George Higginso Professor of Physiology,” in Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin (Sept.-Oct. 1971), 4–8. Of the many obituaries published, Henry H. Dale, “Walter Bradford Cannon,” in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London,5 (1947), 407–423, presents the most detailed critique of Cannon’s physiological contributions, while R. M. Yerkes, “Walter Bradford Cannon: 1871–1945,” in Psychological Review. 53 (1946), 137–146, assesses the impact of Cannon’s views on psychology, particularly on the topic of emotions.

Saul Benison
A. Clifford Barger

Cannon, Walter Bradford

views updated May 23 2018

Cannon, Walter Bradford

(b. Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 19 October 1871; d. Franklin, New Hampshire, 1 October 1945),


For a detailed study of his life and work, see Supplement.