Cannon, Walter B. (Walter Bradford), 1871-1945

Alternative names
Birth 1871-10-19
Death 1945-10-01
French, English

Biographical notes:

Walter Bradford Cannon (Harvard, A.B. 1896; A.M. 1897; M.D. 1900; Honorary Sc.D. 1937) taught physiology at Harvard and was George Higginson Professor of Physiology and Chairman of the Department. He was innovative in both research and medical education. In 1900 he adapted the case system for teaching medicine. His scientific research includes studies on the digestive tract and experiments on the denervated heart and his contributions include the concept of homeostasis and the discovery of the two sympathins. Later studies focused on the parasympathetic and somatic systems and the central nervous system. He also wrote and spoke on the subjects of medical education and the impact of science on society. He defended medical research and animal experimentation and influenced the policies of many scientific and humanitarian organizations, foundations, and funds.

From the description of Papers, 1873-1945, 1972-1974 (inclusive), 1881-1945 (bulk) (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 281438865

Historian Edward Potts Cheyney taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

From the guide to the Drafts of chapters for "Freedom of inquiry and expression, " 1936-1938, 1936-1938, (American Philosophical Society)

Walter Bradford Cannon was a physiologist.

From the description of Correspondence, 1905-1928, with William W. Keen. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122615966

Walter Bradford Cannon was a major figure in the development of American physiology and medicine during the first four decades of the twentieth century. He left St. Paul, Minn., when he was almost twenty-one to matriculate as a freshman at Harvard College and remained at Harvard for the rest of his career, having received there the A.B. in 1896, the A.M. in 1897, the M.D. in 1900, and the honorary Sc.D. in 1937. As a student, Cannon held positions at Radcliffe and Harvard College as proctor and zoology instructor. He was appointed instructor in physiology at Harvard Medical School after graduation in 1900, and was promoted to assistant professor of physiology in 1902. In 1906, he succeeded Henry Pickering Bowditch as the second George Higginson Professor of Physiology and Chairman of the Department. In 1942, he retired and became professor emeritus.

Although his work over the years contributed substantially to the fields of radiology, gastroenterology, endocrinology, psychology and psychiatry, pharmacology, neurology, research surgery, and clinical medicine, Cannon was considered by himself and others first and foremost a physiologist. His scientific research followed a natural progression which began as a first-year medical student with studies on the digestive tract and led to further work on gastrointestinal motility, effects of emotional excitement on bodily functions, adrenal secretions and the formulation of his emergency theory. After interruption by World War I--at which time Cannon concentrated on the nature of wound shock and methods of treatment--denervated heart experiments led to work on the sympathetic nervous system which resulted in his concept of self-regulation of physiologic processes, or homeostasis. The denervated heart experiments also led to study of the chemical transmission of nerve impulses and the discovery of the two sympathins. Cannon's last years were devoted to study of the parasympathetic and somatic systems and to the central nervous system. Monographs on all these researches were published from time to time summarizing the continuous stream of technical papers from the Harvard Medical School Physiology Laboratory which were authored by Cannon and his co-workers.*

The papers in the Archive relate not only to Cannon the scientist, but also to Cannon the humanist who believed in the universality of knowledge and the international brotherhood of man. He wrote and spoke frequently on the subjects of medical education and of the implications and relations of science to society. He participated in the battle for the defense of medical research and animal experimentation against the antivivisectionists. He served in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army in World War I and in an advisory capacity to the U.S. Government in World War II. He influenced the policies of a number of organizations, foundations and funds, scientific and otherwise, as an officer, committee chairman, adviser, or active member. He gave unselfishly of precious time and energy to provide medical aid to war-torn countries and relief for suffering refugees. All of the above attest to Cannon's profound belief in the highest democratic ideals, feeling as he did that a spirit of freedom and independence are vital to the success of creativity and scientific investigation.

Although he never received a Nobel Prize, Walter Cannon was awarded far more than a usual share of medals and honors. And although he participated in controversial issues, Cannon was held in the highest esteem by his colleagues and students. His value as a teacher may be judged by the large number of his students who went on to high positions in the world of science and medicine. He was blessed with a happy home life shared by his wife, Cornelia James Cannon, his sisters Ida and Bernice, and his five children. In spite of failing health, Cannon continued his research, teaching, and organizational duties after retirement. On October 1, 1945, just short of his seventy-fourth birthday, he succumbed to mycosis fungoides, from which he had suffered for almost fifteen years as a result of over-exposure to X-rays during his early experiments on digestion.

*A complete bibliography of Cannon's prolific writings is available in The Life and Contributions of Walter Bradford Cannon, ed. by C.M. Brooks, K. Koizomi, and J.O. Pinkston (State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, 1975, pp. 239-263). The bibliography also includes a list of obituaries and articles about Cannon on pp. 263-264, to which may be added a biographical sketch prepared for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography by A. Clifford Barger and Saul Benison (to be published).

  • 1871: born on Oct 19 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
  • 1885: left school to work in railway office for two years
  • 1891: graduated in three years from St. Paul High School
  • 1892: entered freshman class of Harvard College
  • 1896: graduated summa cum laude and awarded B.A. degree; entered Harvard Medical School
  • 1897: recorded first observation by means of x-rays of movements of the stomach;
  • 1897: awarded M.A. degree
  • 1899 - 1900 : taught course at Harvard and Radcliffe on comparative anatomy of vertebrates
  • 1900: awarded M.D. degree (cum laude);
  • 1900: appointed instructor in physiology at Harvard Medical School;
  • 1900: publication of article on application of case method to teaching of medicine
  • 1901: married on June 25 to Cornelia James
  • 1902: appointed assistant professor in physiology at Harvard Medical School
  • 1904: became member of American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • 1906: offered positions at Cornell University Medical School and Mayo Clinic;
  • 1906: succeeded H.P. Bowditch as George Higginson Professor of Physiology at Harvard Medical School;
  • 1906: elected fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1908: became chairman of Section on Physiology and Pathology of American Medical Association;
  • 1908: became chairman of Committee for the Protection of Medical Research;
  • 1908: declined deanship at Harvard Medical School
  • 1910: publication of A Laboratory Course in Physiology
  • 1911: publication of The Mechanical Factors of Digestion
  • 1913: declined deanship at University of Minnesota Medical School
  • 1914: elected to National Academy of Sciences
  • 1914 - 1916 : served as President of American Physiological Society
  • 1915: publication of Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage;
  • 1915: appointed trustee of Elizabeth Thompson Science Fund
  • 1916: declined deanship at Harvard Medical School
  • 1917 - 1918 : England England Lac England England Tungland England Cemetery England Number 3 Dam England Ridge England Creek HVDC Quebec-New England - Des Cantons Grounding Electrode England Brothers Number 1 Dam England Branch England Mine New England Park Kampunglandeuh Langland Koringlandskloof Nglandean England Run Veterinary Clinic Springland Longlands Kessingland New England Hall New England Mine France Republic of France served with AEF in England and France during World War I;
  • 1917 - 1918 : American President of Anglo-American Medical Society;
  • 1917 - 1918 : member of Special Investigation Committee on Surgical Shock and Allied Problems of English Medical Research Committee;
  • 1917 - 1918 : chairman of Medical Research Committee of American Red Cross
  • 1918: delivered Croonian lecture to Royal Society, London
  • 1919: created Commander of the Order of the Bath
  • 1920: declined offer of position as research physiologist at Mayo Clinic
  • 1921: joined Committee for Research on Sex Problems of National Research Council
  • 1922: awarded DSM as director of physiological research for AEF in France
  • 1923: publication of Traumatic Shock;
  • 1923: awarded honorary degree by Yale University;
  • 1923: first meeting with I.P. Pavlov who visited U.S.
  • 1927: joined Medical Fellowship Board of National Research Council
  • 1929: awarded honorary degree by Boston University;
  • 1929: in charge of arrangements for 13th International Congress of Physiologists held in Boston
  • 1930: served as exchange professor in France for second half of 1929-1930 academic year;
  • 1930: visited Spain;
  • 1930: awarded honorary degrees by Universities of Liege and Strasbourg;
  • 1930: elected foreign honorary fellow of Royal Society of Edinburgh;
  • 1930: delivered Linacre lecture at Cambridge, England;
  • 1930: awarded $175,000 grant from Rockefeller Foundation for research in physiology
  • 1931: celebration of 25th anniversary as Higginson Professor of Physiology;
  • 1931: awarded honorary degree by University of Paris;
  • 1931: awarded Baly Medal by Royal College of Physicians;
  • 1931: beginning of skin trouble later diagnosed as mycosis fungoides
  • 1932: publication of The Wisdom of the Body
  • 1933: delivered lectures for Beaumont Centennial celebration
  • 1934: awarded Gold Medal by National Institute of Social Sciences;
  • 1934: elected to honorary membership in Physiological Society (England);
  • 1934: delivered Kober lectures to Association of American Physicians;
  • 1934: delivered Caldwell lecture to American Roentgen Ray Society
  • 1935: visiting professor at Peking Union Medical College, China;
  • 1935: attended 15th International Congress of Physiologists in Russia
  • 1936: appointed to Board of Scientific Directors of Rockefeller Institute;
  • 1936: became chairman of Committee on Endocrinology of National Research Council;
  • 1936: elected corresponding member, National Academy of Medicine, Argentina;
  • 1936: elected honorary foreign member, Royal Belgian Academy of Medicine;
  • 1936: elected honorary member of New York Academy of Medicine;
  • 1936: awarded honorary degree by Washington University School of Medicine;
  • 1936: delivered address to American College of Physicians in Detroit;
  • 1936: delivered address at 100th anniversary of Emory University, Atlanta;
  • 1936: publication of Digestion and Health
  • 1937: publication of Autonomic Neuro-Effector Systems (with Arturo Rosenblueth);
  • 1937: awarded honorary degree by Harvard University;
  • 1937: became chairman of Spanish Medical Bureau
  • 1939: served as President of American Association for the Advancement of Science;
  • 1939: elected to foreign membership of Royal Society, London;
  • 1939: elected honorary foreign member of Royal Swedish Academy of Science;
  • 1939: became member of China Medical Board;
  • 1939: delivered Hughlings Jackson memorial lecture at Toronto;
  • 1939: attended 50th anniversary of University of Minnesota Medical School
  • 1940: became chairman of Committee on Shock and Transfusion of National Research Council;
  • 1940: delivered address at 50th anniversary of Stanford University
  • 1941: chairman of Medical Division, United China Relief;
  • 1941: awarded Friedenwald Medal by American Gastroenterological Association;
  • 1941: Hitchcock visiting professor at University of California
  • 1942: became foreign secretary of National Academy of Science and chairman of Foreign Relations Division of National Research Council;
  • 1942: retired and became professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School;
  • 1942: elected honorary member of Academy of Sciences of USSR
  • 1943: President of American-Soviet Medical Society
  • 1944: visiting professor at New York University Medical School
  • 1945: visiting investigator at Institute of Cardiology, Mexico City;
  • 1945: publication of The Way of an Investigator;
  • 1945: awarded honorary degree by New York University;
  • 1945: died on Oct 1 at Franklin, New Hampshire
  • 1949: posthumous publication of The Super-Sensitivity of Denervated Structures (completed by Arturo Rosenblueth)

From the guide to the Papers, 1873-1945 (inclusive), 1881-1945 (bulk), (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.)

Walter B. Cannon (1871-1945, APS 1908) was a physiologist and medical educator. He was widely noted for his trailblazing research in gastrointestinal physiology. He was the first to use the technology of X-rays to study gastrointestinal processes. He was a pioneer in studying the influence of emotional states on bodily functions and in "the understanding of nerve transmission and hormonal regulation of the body" (Lederer, p.340) and developed the concept of homeostasis. As a Harvard medical professor, he was the first to apply the case method to teaching systematic medicine. In his position as chairman of the American Medical Association’s Defense Committee in Support of Medical Research, he led the fight against the Antivivisectionist movement. His major works include The Mechanical Factors of Digestion (1911), Traumatic Shock (1923), the Wisdom of the Body (1932) and Autonomic Neuro-Effector Systems (1937).

Canon was born on October 19, 1871 at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He was the only son of Colbert Hanchett Canon, a railroad worker and Sarah Wilma Denio, a school teacher. He attended primary schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and St. Paul, Minnesota. At fourteen, when his father was disappointed at the boy’s lack of diligence in school, he sent him to work in a railroad office for two years. After he returned to high school, he finished the four-year curriculum in three years, graduating as valedictorian of his class. He took an extra postgraduate year to prepare for college examinations. His English literature teacher Ms. M.J. Newson convinced Cannon to apply to Harvard College and helped to obtain financial aid for him. As a Harvard undergraduate he studied biology and zoology under Charles B. Davenport (1866-1944, APS 1907). He graduated summa cum laude in 1896 and received an M.A. degree from Harvard in 1897. Although he would have preferred to study medicine at Johns Hopkins, his letter to Hopkins’s Dean William H. Welch, requesting financial aid went unanswered. Consequently, Cannon remained at Harvard for his medical training, entering the Medical School in the fall of 1896.

During his first year of medical school at Harvard, he followed the suggestion of physiology professor Henry P. Bowditch (1840-1911, APS 1904) that he join a second-year student Albert Moser in an investigation of the phenomena of swallowing and the visceral movements in animals using the recently developed technology of x-rays. Using an x-ray apparatus provided by Dr. Ernest Amory Codman of Massachsetts General Hospital, the two students examined the esophagus of a dog during the process of swallowing or deglutition. An initial demonstration, using pearl buttons revealed nothing. However, recalling the observation of Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered x-rays a year earlier, that salts of heavy metals obstructed the passage of x-rays, they tried the same experiment, using gelatin capsules filled with bismuth subnitrate in a frog and a goose. This time the experiment succeeded, since bismuth subnitrate is opaque to x-rays. At a Boston meeting of the American Physiological Society in late December they repeated the experiment in a goose, using Röntgen’s rays. This was the first public demonstration of the movement of the alimentary canal by use of x-ray technology. Cannon's continued investigation into the digestive system would later result in his first monograph, Mechanical Factors of Digestion (1911). In it, he noted with great interest the correlation between emotional disturbances and the digestive process in animal subjects.

While in medical school Cannon also showed himself an educational innovator. Envious of the educational experiences of his roommate, a Harvard law student, who reported that he and his classmates discussed actual legal cases and their implications for practice in class, Cannon suggested a similar pedagogy in a 1900 paper published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. The article, entitled “Case Method of Teaching Systematic Medicine,” suggested employing real case histories and hospital data in active classroom discussions instead of the “dreary and benumbing process” of passively listening to lectures and reading texts. The young instructor’s new teaching technique was quickly adopted by several departments at the Harvard Medical School and even incorporated by a number of medical texts.

In his last year of medical school Cannon was already working as a zoology instructor at Harvard College, where he taught comparative vertebrate anatomy. After he graduated from medical school in 1900, professor William Townsend Porter encouraged Harvard President Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926, APS 1871) to make Cannon an instructor of physiology. The following year on June 25, 1901 he married a longtime friend Cornelia James, who would later become a best-selling author. In 1902 Cannon advanced to the rank of assistant professor, again with Porter’s backing. In 1906, when Cornell Medical School tried to recruit him, President Eliot decided to have Cannon, whose teaching ability made him popular with students, succeed the retiring professor Bowditch as George Higginson Professor of Physiology and department chairman (rather than Porter). Porter was made Professor of comparative physiology. Altogether Cannon would spend four decades on the physiology faculty of the Harvard Medical School, retiring in 1942. His tenure at Harvard was interrupted only by service with the Army Medical Corps during the First World War, when he was stationed in France and England in 1917-1918.

Cannon’s growing engagement in physiological research had political, as well as professional implications for him. Following strong antivivisectionist assaults on the new Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and legislative attempts in New York and elsewhere to curb the use of animals in medical experiments, Cannon joined the struggle against antivivisection. In 1908, in response to these antivivisectionist initiatives, the American Medical Association created a special Defense Committee in Support of Medical Research. Because of his prominence as an experimental physiologist, the thirty-seven year old Cannon was asked to head the committee, placing him in the forefront of the struggle. In this position he would be the A.M.A.’s chief strategist for the next eighteen years. He firmly defended the rights of medical researchers, declaring that “the imagined horrors of medical research do not exist . . . . [Furthermore] 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 . . . that these critics in their ignorance are endeavoring to stop that experimental study of physiology and pathology.” Cannon and his retired colleague Philadelphia surgeon William W. Keen (1837-1932, APS 1884) monitored antivivisectionist activity, mobilized the medical profession, lobbied politicians, testified in public hearings, and wrote tirelessly in defense of animal experimentation.

During the first World War, Cannon worked on the treatment of trauma and wound shock. Even before the entry of the United States into the war, in the fall of 1916 the National Research Council recruited him for its Committee on Traumatic Shock. Later he joined the Harvard University Hospital Unit, and on his way to France in May 1917 stopped in London to join the Medical Research Committee, a group of physicians and surgeons from the British Expeditionary Forces, treating shock cases at the Casualty Clearing State at Béthune. The following summer, after the Medical Research Committee formed a Shock Committee, Cannon was named a member. Later, he was appointed director of the surgical research laboratory of the American Expeditionary Forces’s Central Medical Department. Although Cannon and his colleagues initially focused their efforts on treating the acidosis that accompanies shock, they soon realized that acidosis was simply a secondary occurrence, the result of inadequate tissue perfusion. Cannon later summarized the conclusions of his wartime experiences in his work on Traumatic Shock (1923).

In the years preceding and immediately following World War I, he devoted much energy to research into the sympathetic nervous system and functions of the suprarenal medulla, such as the secretion of the adrenaline during stress, the "fight or flight" mechanism. The studies he started with M.A. McIver and S.W. Bliss on the sympathetic and adrenal mechanism for mobilizing sugar in hypoglycemia caused by insulin (1923) might have provided the original context for his notion of homeostatis. He coined the term in a 1926 paper titled “Physiological Regulation of Normal States.” Canon published an extensive analysis of the problem of homeostatis in 1929. The article, which appeared in Physiological Reviews, discussed the homeostatic regulation of water, sodium chloride balance, glucose, protein, fat and calcium, but also examined the part played by the autonomic nervous system in homeostatis and the homeostatic functions of hunger, thirst, and uniform temperature. Cannon popularized the concept of homeostatis in a 1932 book entitled the Wisdom of the Body.

Beginning in the 1930’s Cannon and his colleagues Z.M. Bacq and Arturo Rosenbluth focused their research chemical transmission of nerve impulses. An early synthesis of their work was entitled Autonomic Neuro-Effective Systems (1937), that hypothesized the existence of two “sympathins,” one excitatory and one inhibitory. Although it drew critical reviews, the work bore some resemblance to the research e carried out later by Nobel laureates Otto Loewi (1936) and Ulf von Euler (1970).

In addition to his strong commitments to medical education and scientific research, Cannon cherished the deep conviction that as a citizen, a scientist is obligated to defend freedom, which is indispensable for productive scholarship. His beliefs in the family of humankind and the universality of science led to his involvement with the American-Soviet Medical Society and the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China. He was also increasingly concerned about the growing threat that fascist and authoritarian governments posed to the scientific community. After meeting Spanish physiologist Juan Negrin (later premier of the Spanish Republic), Cannon began to follow political developments in Spain very closely. In 1937 he became chair of the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. He also developed a friendship with Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1848-1936, APS 1932), who had similar research interests, but he also had a general (albeit not uncritical) interest in the Soviet Union and it support for science. In all of these international endeavors Cannon was motivated by two concerns: the advancement of science and humanitarian support for the weak and oppressed.

Cannon was active in a number of scholarly and professional organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physiological Society. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1908. In addition to his research articles and monographs, he was author of a several popular books that found a wide audience. These works included Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage (1915) and The Wisdom of the Body (1932), and his autobiography, The Way of an Investigator: A Scientist's Experiences in Medical Research (1945).

Cannon retired from the Harvard Medical School in 1942. Although he was a visiting professor at the New York University Medical School in 1944 and did research with Arturo Rosenbluth in Mexico City in 1945, Cannon’s health was failing. The ill health he had endured for decades and the cancerous condition he developed in later life are probably the result of his experiments with x-rays during the early days of his research. Cannon died in Franklin, New Hampshire on October 1, 1945. He was survived by his wife Cornelia, his son Bradford and daughter Marian.

Throughout his adult life, Cannon steadfastly maintained that science held the key to the betterment of the human condition, and that science was synonymous with "truth" and "knowledge". To Cannon, the sanctity of science should not be curtailed or tarnished by arbitrary limitations or falsehood. Scientists should be afforded maximum freedom in their research. In fact, it is the scientist's duty to maximize his freedom by educating the public and promoting a borderless ethic in scientific discourse. These convictions led Cannon to do battle with the antivivisection movement, to assist Jewish doctors from Nazi-controlled Europe, to bring medical relief to the Spanish Republic and to support the formation of scientific ties with the Soviet Union. Consequently, Cannon viewed his opposition to antivivsection as a fundamentally "moral" proposition. Convinced that animal experimentation was essential to medical progress, he considered antivivisectionists' efforts to throw roadblocks in the way of scientific progress as "immoral," and he fulminated over what he perceived as their use of distortions, fabrications, and mistatements, or their sheer, unadulterated ignorance.

From the guide to the Walter B. Cannon Papers, 1905-1928, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Physiology--Research
  • Neurology--United States
  • Surgery--United States
  • Political refugees
  • Freedom of the press
  • Medicine--Study and teaching
  • Academic freedom
  • Surgery
  • Medicine--United States
  • Teaching, Freedom of
  • Science and technology
  • Liberty
  • Tuberculosis
  • Vivisection
  • Typhoid vaccine
  • Physiology--Congresses
  • Evolution
  • Freedom of speech
  • Medicine
  • Shock
  • Neurology


  • Physiologists


  • Spain (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)