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H MS c40

Cannon, Walter B. (Walter Bradford), 1871-1945. Papers, 1873-1945, 1972-1974 (inclusive), 1881-1945 (bulk): Finding Aid.

Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)


Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

The organization of this Archive was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: H MS c40
Repository: Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine)
Creator: Cannon, Walter B. (Walter Bradford), 1871-1945.
Title: Walter Bradford Cannon Papers,
Date(s): 1873-1945 (inclusive),
Date(s): 1881-1945 (bulk)
Quantity: 209 boxes
Language of materials: English
Abstract: The Walter Bradford Cannon Papers, 1873-1945 (inclusive), 1881-1945 (bulk) record Cannon's administrative, research, and professional activities while George Higginson Professor of Physiology and Chair of the Department at Harvard Medical School. The collection consists of correspondence, research data, manuscripts, lecture notes, and meeting minutes resulting from Cannon's administrative and committee work at Harvard Medical School, his professional activities on behalf of refugees and other humanitarian interests; and his involvement in scientific organizations. The collection also contains records produced during Cannon's wartime medical service, extensive personal correspondence with his wife, Cornelia Cannon; and several personal items including letters and papers from Cannon's student years.

Conditions Governing Use:

Access requires advance notice. Consult the Public Services Librarian for further information.
The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all the materials in the collection. Requests for permission to publish material from the collection should be directed to the Public Services Librarian. Researchers who obtain permission to publish from the Public Services Librarian are responsible for identifying and contacting the persons or organizations that hold copyright. Reference Services and Access Information.

Preferred Citation:

Walter Bradford Cannon papers, 1873-1945, 1972-1974 (inclusive), 1881-1945 (bulk). H MS c40. Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, Mass.

Biographical Note

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).

Walter B. Cannon -- Chronology

Series and Subseries in the Collection

Scope and Content Note

The Walter B. Cannon Archive in the Countway Library of Harvard Medical School constitutes the major repository of his papers. The nucleus has been drawn from the Harvard Medical Archives and supplemented since the establishment of the Walter B. Cannon Research Project in 1973 by additional materials and photoreproductions from the Cannon family, from colleagues and former students, and from collections in other libraries. The letters and related materials are contained in 164 manuscript boxes. Particularly full runs of correspondence in all the categories described in this inventory are to be found from mid-1922 to mid-1924 and from mid-1930 to 1942. The diaries, scrapbooks and albums, manuscripts and lecture notes, and memorabilia take up another 16 boxes. Addenda and supplementary materials gathered together by project investigators for use in preparation of a full-length biography account for an additional 29 boxes as of the end of 1977.

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