March 12, 2010

Historical Hero: Walter B. Cannon, 1871-1945

In 1913, Walter B. Cannon, Chair of the Dept. of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, made a courageous address concerning the ‘Ideals of the Man of Science’. First, his vision; afterward the context that made this courageous:
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.


  1. It does seem as though men of science of such backbone are somewhat lacking in our own day, at least when it comes to defending their ideas in the sphere of the general public. As a result, we now are seeing signs of global warming so acute that Quebec winters are over and done with by February, and there doesn't seem to be any prominent and galvanizing figure out there anywhere to sound the alarm bells.

  2. I fear we have long-since ceased to look to men who know, and who will fight for the right to know, as factors in leadership and policy. The probably behoves such men, if indeed there are any, to fight in a rather different way. I'm not sure leaders and policy makers would be quite ready for that.

  3. First off, doctor, I for one am tired of lab rats riding the coattails of heroes. How much self-congratulation can a coward require? Is his sophistication that drives him to it - what part?

    Doctor, you should decide whether Sir Kitchener or Montgomery are more important to you than - what the hell, Albert Einstein! So should any serious man and I am pretty sure most women can make the difference.

    In despite of fourth-hand prose - these people are not heroes, what they do is not conquering, and their achievements are not pure gold over the rainbow. These are the people that have made the body, gold, the rainbow, and everything else we might feel poetic about seem prosaic, stupid, and misunderstood.

    How far should we trust people who know? Are scientists to run our lives? Why would they care about us and why would we trust them?

    Doctor, someone who cleans the toilet is not a hero. The job is necessary, as many are, and there are artisans who deal with all of these things. They are not any less boring or demeaning. Who has seen factories, laboratories, libraries even, schools, and think tanks - and thinks these the places where heroes are made?

    Let's try and stick to some basic criteria: risking one's life for a good cause seems like an obvious choice.

  4. Some science (scientists) no doubt has the effect you describe on 'things we might feel poetic about', but others merely re-cast the poetry. I don't think there is a shortage of wonder in scientific quarters. Nor is science a stranger to lives risked in the name of good causes.

    The questions of trust and care are good ones, but they apply to any group that leads or wants to. I may take this up later.


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