Walter Bradford Cannon

6th APS President (1914-1916)
Walter Bradford Cannon

Walter B. Cannon's three years as president of APS coincided with the early years of the Federation. Perhaps the most important event of his presidency, one that required extremely delicate handling on his part, occurred in his first two months in office, when Porter resigned as editor of the American Journal of Physiology and the Society assumed ownership and management of the journal.

Cannon was born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where, at Fort Crawford in the 1820s, Beaumont had carried out some of his celebrated experiments on St. Martin. Attracted to the biological sciences as an undergraduate at Harvard, Cannon began working in Bowditch's laboratory as a first-year student at Harvard Medical School in 1896. That year he began an innovative investigation in which he used the newly discovered X rays to study the mechanism of swallowing and the motility of the stomach. He demonstrated deglutition in a goose at the APS meeting in December 1896 and published his first paper on this research in the first issue of the American Journal of Physiology in January 1898. In 1900 he received his medical degree and became a member of APS.

Cannon became an instructor in the Department of Physiology at Harvard in 1900 and was promoted to assistant professor in 1902. When Bowditch retired in 1906, Cannon succeeded him as Higginson Professor and chairman of the department, a position he retained until 1942. He headed one of the most active departments in the country, where students from around the world were trained. Cannon's early research on gastrointestinal motility led to pioneering research on the physiological basis of the emotions and to the development of the concept of the emergency function of the sympathetic nervous system. During World War I he studied problems of traumatic shock. His later research on the sympathetic nervous system and neurochemical transmission of nerve impulses culminated in his enunciation and development of the key physiological concept of homeostasis. He was the author of A Laboratory Course in Physiology (1910 and subsequent editions), The Mechanical Factors of Digestion (1911), Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage (1915, 2nd ed. 1929), Traumatic Shock (1923), The Wisdom of the Body (1932), Digestion and Health (1936), Autonomic Neuro-effector Systems (1937, with Arturo Rosenblueth), and The Way of an Investigator (1945), which was reprinted and distributed as a souvenir volume at the XXIV IUPS Congress held in Washington, D.C., in 1968.

Cannon's service to APS extended over a period of nearly forty years. He scarcely missed a meeting between his election to APS and his death in 1945. He was a member of Council from 1905 to 1920; he served as treasurer from 1905 to 1913 and was a member of the Conference Committee that established the Federation in 1912. From 1908 to 1926, as chairman of the Committee on Defense of Medical Research of the American Medical Association, he directed the defense of animal experimentation against the antivivisectionists and kept the Society informed of the state of the problem. When the XIII International Physiological Congress was held at Boston in 1929, Cannon was host in charge of local arrangements. In the 1930s he was the American representative to the International Committee that organized the congresses. At the fiftieth anniversary of the Society in 1938, Cannon presented a tribute to his teacher, Bowditch, at the celebratory banquet. He is commemorated by the Society through the Walter B. Cannon Memorial Lecture, a plenary lecture given at the spring meeting of the Society and sponsored by the Grass Foundation.

Selected Publications

1. Anonymous. Walter Bradford Cannon. Physiologist 6: 4-5, 1963.

2. Barger, A. C. New technology for a new century: Walter B. Cannon and the invisible rays. Physiologist 24(5): 6-14, 1981.

3. Benison, S., and A. C. Barger. Walter Bradford Cannon. In: Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Scribner, 1978, vol. 15, p. 71-77.

4. Fleming, D. Walter Bradford Cannon. In: Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1973, suppl. 3, p. 133-137.

5. Howell, W. H., and C. W. Greene. History of the American Physiological Society Semicentennial, 1887-1937. Baltimore, MD: Am. Physiol. Soc., 1938, p. 94-96.

6. Ring, G. C. Walter Bradford Cannon, born October 19, 1871, died October 1, 1945. Physiologist 1(5): 37-42, 1958.