Through the long history of the extension of civil habitation there runs a record, often imperfect, of a brotherhood of venturesome men who have served as the world’s explorers and pioneers. For such men the zest of life lies in discoveries and conquests in the unmapped wilderness. To stagnate in self-satisfied contemplation of things accomplished is for them intolerable. Their restless spirits demand the stir and eventfulness of fresh endeavour. Of this ancient brotherhood the man of science is a member… He sets out from the frontiers of knowledge and he attempts to penetrate the unexplored realms of reality – treasures of new facts and explanations. Then the unfailing charm of novelty and the allurement of further search seize upon him and urge him day and night to go forward. Hardship and privation he can bear, if only he may be foremost to enter that unexplored territory, foremost to behold with his own eyes its undiscovered wonders. It is the spirit of the explorers and pioneers, ‘conquering, holding, daring, venturing as they go the unknown ways’, that is the moving spirit in the search for truth.
All this is noble enough, and easy to say for a man at peace. But this was a man at war; a man whose worldview was challenged by a powerful lobby that would have seen him incarcerated before it would see another discovery in the name of science. Cannon, as chairman of the Council for the Defense of Medical Research, championed those who would conquer diphtheria, rabies, smallpox, tuberculosis and syphilis. To do so, he had to fight off swathes of well-funded quacks and cranks whose moral outrage at vaccination and vivisection, borne on the backs of misinformation, paranoia and fanaticism, threatened permanently to shut the door on scientific research. Cannon fired back at them in New York, in Boston, in Philadelphia, and in Washington. Over forty years he did not tire, nor shirk from what he knew was his responsibility. Yet he did not do so with empty rhetorical propaganda. He did not stoop to the level of his assailants. From the first, Cannon believed in the integrity of the public, of its willingness and preparedness to learn. He was assured that people could be educated, if only given the chance. He fought bluster with substance, closed-mindedness with vision, and facetiousness with cutting severity and sincerity. In 1915 Cannon coined the term ‘fight or flight’ to describe the ways in which animals responded to threats. As sure as this was a man of moral fibre, this was a man who stood and fought.