WALTER BRADFORD CANNON: EXPERIMENTAL PHYSIOLOGIST 1871-1945
by Edric Lescouflair, Harvard
Walter Bradford Cannon was born
in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on October 19, 1871. From his
early years, he exhibited acumen in the biological sciences. As
a youngster, he read about the debates between traditionalists
and Darwinists, especially those involving William Wilberforce,
bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley. During his high school years
the perceived conflict between science and religion so affected
him that he eventually announced that he no longer believed in
the ideals of the Calvinist church, the faith of his family. He
was subsequently referred to a minister, about whom he later remarked,
The clergyman in the church took precisely the wrong course
in dealing with my difficulties; he wanted to know what right
I had, as a mere youth, to set up my opinion against the opinion
of great scholars who supported the church's doctrines. This appeal
to authority did not impress me at all, because I knew that there
were great scholars in the opposition. Furthermore, I had the
feeling that I was entitled to my independent judgment."
At this difficult time in his young
life, Cannon found friendship in the person of Samuel McChord
Crothers, a Unitarian minister who had had a similar experience,
and who advocated the "freedom of the human soul." He
would subsequently adhere to the Unitarian faith. Cannon's interest
in science and liberal religion only increased as he immersed
himself in the writings of Darwin, James Martineau, and James
By the end of his high school career,
Cannon had distinguished himself academically, and was prepared
to attend Harvard College in 1892. Because of his interest in
the biological sciences, he decided to pursue a preparatory course
for medical school.
By 1896, Cannon had been accepted
at Harvard Medical School. He started working in the lab of Henry
Pickering Bowditch during his first year, and investigated swallowing
and stomach motility using the X-ray technique. The results of
his research were published in the first American Journal of
Physiology, in 1898. In 1900 Cannon received his medical degree,
joined the American Physiological Society, and became an instructor
in the Department of Physiology at the Harvard Medical School.
he sometimes found navigating the social scene at Harvard to be
harrowing, Cannon was able to depend on friends from his past
to support him. He married a longtime friend, Cornelia James,
on June 25, 1901. In 1902
Cannon became an assistant professor of physiology, and Bowditch's
retirement in 1906 provided a new opportunity for him. He succeeded
Bowditch as the George Higginson Professor of Physiology and became
the chair of the department, a position he would hold until 1942.
Cannon's research became more involved
at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly at the outset
of World War I. From 1914 to 1916, he served as president of the
American Physiological Society and concentrated on traumatic shock,
a major issue for soldiers, writing in 1915 Bodily Changes
in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage. In 1923 his Traumatic
Shock postulated that traumatic shock was caused by blood
being drained into the dilated capillary region, a phenomenon
for which he coined the term exemia. The treatment of shock, he
argued, should concentrate on reinstating normal circulation.
Also well documented is his research on the sympathetic nervous
system and neurochemical transmission of nerve impulses. He also
discovered the adrenalin-like hormone, sympathin.
Dr. Cannon exhibited his unusual
integrity in accepting an invitation to address the International
Physiological Congress in Leningrad in 1935. He stated, "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. The world-wide economic depression
has greatly reduced the material support for scholarly efforts.
What is the social value of the physiologist or biochemist? He
went on to decry the recent university closings and general lack
of attention to proper education. In 1943, he defied Soviet-American
tension by receiving the presidency of the American Soviet Medical
Society in 1943.
Those close to Cannon knew of his
humanitarian nature. Among the causes he espoused were the Loyalist
struggle in Spain, and aid to the Chinese. As a Unitarian, he
felt that it was his duty to speak and act against what he identified
as injustice. When he died on October 19, 1945, Dr. S. B. Wolbach,
a pathology professor, offered in tribute that Cannon was "competent
in the highest degree to appraise character and achievement, praise
often came from him, condemnation rarelyand was never expressed
at large. His geniality, quick wit, and delightful sense of humor
enlivened any group he chanced to join and made him the best of
companions on all occasions."
A SON'S REFLECTIONS
The following summary
of Cannons life of contrasts and contributions was written
by his son, Dr. Bradford Cannon.
X-ray equipment of the type used by Dr. Cannon
Over the years, stimulated
by an ongoing dialogue about my father's work with his biographers,
I have come to appreciate more fully his contributions to stress,
psychophysiology, and psychosomatic medicine. Although it may
seem strange for a surgeon to address research relating to the
field of stress, I have a front-row seat for observing my father's
widespread interests and activities in several different spheres
of knowledge. Moreover, my professional education and experience
have provided a meaningful framework for understanding his work,
which permits me to offer some thoughtful reflections. Here is
a summary of his life of contrasts and contributions.
Although not a radiologist,
he learned to use primitive X-ray equipment to perform his early
Although not a gastroenterologist,
he made significant contributions to understanding the mechanical
factors of digestion.
Although not an endocrinologist,
he alerted the profession to the functions of the adrenal medulla
and its allied sympathetic nervous system in the maintenance of
Although not a neurologist,
he clarified the role of the hypothalamus in emotional states
and proved the chemical mediation of autonomic nerve impulses
across the synapse.
Cannon in Glacier National Park
Although not a psychiatrist,
through his research, summarized in his classic Bodily Changes
in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage, he contributed to the development
of modern psychosomatic medicine.
Although not a clinical
surgeon, he carefully observed the nature of traumatic shock and
thus paved the way to a better understanding of this ominous emergency.
Although not a psychologist,
he clarified the pathways of emotional responses and proved the
error of the James-Lange theory.
Although not a politician,
he suggested corrective measures for instability in the body politic
and became a public defender of medical research, mobilizing the
profession to apprise legislators of the fruits of animal experimentation,
and to defeat efforts by the anti-vivisectionists to curb by legal
action the use of animals for scientific investigation.
Finally, although not
mountaineers, he and my mother on their honeymoon were the first
to reach the summit of an unclimbed peak at the head of Lake McDonald
in what is now Glacier National Park. It was subsequently named
Mount Cannon by the United States Geological Survey!
Bradford Cannon: Reflections on the Man and His Contributions,"
International Journal of Stress Management, Vol.1, No. 2,
A DAUGHTER'S VIEW
daughter, Marian Cannon Schlesinger, not only wrote about her
father but also sketched various scenes pertinent to his life.
My father's career as an experimental physiologist was extremely
fruitful throughout the thirty-six years of his professorship
at the Harvard Medical School, with over four hundred graduate
students and colleagues working and collaborating in the physiological
laboratory during that span.
and Mrs. Cannon in Franklin, NH
As a medical student
my father had found medical textbooks hard going and sleep inducing
and had observed with some envy the enthusiasm of his roommate,
a student at the Harvard Law School, where the case system of
study was being used. Recognizing the similarity between medical
and legal case histories, as a Medical School senior in 1900 he
wrote an article suggesting that hospital records should be used
to teach medicine. In the years that followed, his suggestion
was acted upon, and the case system of teaching became an integral
feature of medical education.
His early studies of
the mechanics of digestion and the gastrointestinal tract led
eventually to his studies of the effects of the emotions on the
body. As he wrote in his autobiography, The Way of an Investigator:
"The whole purpose of my effort was to see the peristaltic
waves and to learn their effects. Only after some time did I note
that the absence of activity was accompanied by signs of perturbation,
and when serenity was restored the waves promptly reappeared.
This observation, a gift for my troubles, led to a long series
of studies on the effects of strong emotions on the body. The
idea flashed through my mind that [these changes] could be nicely
integrated if conceived of as bodily preparations for supreme
effort in flight or in fighting. The inhibition of digestive activity
by emotional excitement was an interruption of a process which
is not essential in a life-or-death emergency and which uses a
supply of blood urgently needed elsewhere."
On the basis of these
experiments carried on over a period of years, he wrote Bodily
Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage. Over the years a large
body of research was carried on in his laboratory on the emergency
function of the sympathetic-adrenal mechanism and finally on the
eventual chemical mediation of nerve impulses.
In the early thirties,
as the result of his conviction that "it is important that
science be understood in a democracy," he wrote The Wisdom
of the Body, a fascinating description of the factors involved
in the preservation of the internal equilibrium of the body, which
he called "homeostasis." The book often reads like a
book of wonders as it describes the extraordinarily complex internal
world of the human animal and the mechanisms by which the body
acts to maintain the balance essential for continuing existence.
How, for example, the water, sugar, and salt content of the blood
is kept constant; how the body temperature, exposed to great fluctuations
from within and without, maintains constancy; how in case of an
emergency in many organs, the margin of safety to draw on is often
fifteen times that necessary for rectification. He describes how
the processes of repair and adjustment go on independently of
conscious thought, triggered by an incredibly sensitive system
of automatic indicators, which set the corrective process in operation.
are some lines by political scientist Karl Deutsch drawn
from his 1946 Christian Register review of The
Way of the Investigator.
of Dr. Walter B. Cannon by Ethel Mechanic. Courtesy
of Boston Public Library Print Department.
In this vivid and thrilling autobiography, Dr. Cannon, for
four decades professor at Harvard Medical School and author
of internationally standard works on physiology, has left
us far more than a firsthand account of what goes on in
the hearts and minds of pioneers in medical research. This
intellectual and moral testament of one of America’s leading
men of science answers the question: “How shall one live?”
He brings home
the moral responsibility of each scientist to take his place
in action as a citizen and leader in the great political
and spiritual decisions of our time. Dr. Cannon believes
that the degree of scientific insight and healing power
achieved today in medicine may be in time paralleled by
the social sciences for the body politics.
The wider issue
of the true nature and effectiveness of the scientific method
has important implications for liberal religion. It is the
business of ministers of religion, as well as of laymen,
to bring the moral demands and prophetic insights of religion
to bear upon the complex facts of mankind’s suffering and
dangerous present. But in order to accomplish his task we
must be able to find out just what the true facts are. We
must all of us become more skilled in the methods of fact-finding
investigation. In this sense every pioneering advance in
the natural and social sciences, as well as every human
record of a great investigator, throws down a challenge
to all of us who care for a living liberal religion as a
major force the reconstruction of a peaceful world.