Walter Cannon was born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1871, the son of a rail-road official (his father) and a high school teacher (his mother). His parents had intellectual interests and young Walter read widely. One of his high school teachers, Mary Jeannette Newsom, encouraged him and helped him to apply to Harvard University. He was accepted into Harvard and earned both his college and medical degrees there; his MD was awarded in 1900. Cannon immediately began working as an instructor in the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School and in 1906 became chair of that department. He remained in that position until 1942. In 1901, Cannon married Cornelia James, who wrote best-selling novels. They had five children, a son and four daughters. Cannon died in 1945 at age 74.
Cannon made a number of important scientific contributions. He was one of the first scientists to systematically study the physiology of emotion. Cannon's research on this topic led him to conclude that when an animal is strongly aroused, usually due to fear or rage, it produces what he called a fight-or-flight response (now also called the stress response), a full-body emergency reaction largely controlled by the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (a branch of the autonomic nervous system) and the release of the hormone adrenaline. Cannon (1915/1929) described his findings in his book Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear, and Rage, published in 1915. Cannon also introduced a major theory of emotion called the Cannon-Bard theory, named for Cannon and his collaborator Philip Bard (Cannon, 1927). According to this theory, when an individual encounters a stimulus, the different elements of the resulting emotion, the physiological response, the cognition (thought), and the emotional feeling are produced simultaneously. Cannon and Bard's theory contradicted William James's earlier and influential theory, the James-Lange theory of emotion, which held that emotional feelings occur after cognitive appraisals and physiological responses. Cannon also developed the concept of homeostasis, the process by which body states are maintained at a steady level. Cannon coined the term, described the functionality, and presented data on the process of homeostasis.
Cannon was president of the American Physiological Society from 1914 to 1916. He was considered for the Nobel Prize several times but was never awarded one. He was active politically, defending the right of scientists to utilize animals as research subjects and becoming a leader in the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy, among other activist pursuits. Walter Cannon wrote an autobiography, The Way of an Investigator (1945). In 1994, his son Bradfield Cannon (who died in 2005) wrote an article in the International Journal of Stress Management, describing his father's contributions to science.
See also autonomic nervous system, Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, James-Lange theory of emotion, stress, stress hormones, sympathetic nervous system.
Walter Bradford Cannon papers, 1873-1945, 1972-1974 (inclusive), 1881-1945 (bulk). HMS c40. Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, MA. Retrieved from http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/deepLink?_collection=oasis&uniqueId=med00088
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