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Paving New Pathways in Physiology

Walter B. Cannon:The Life and Times of a Young Scientist. Saul Benison, A. Clifford Barger and Elin L. Wolfe. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987. 506 pp. $30.00. This biographical history is as interesting to read as a suspense novel, containing elements of personal and institutional conflict and intrigue, local and national politics, international conflict and cooperation, and scientific, educational and administrative creativity. A foreword by Howard E. Morgan, former president of

By | May 18, 1987

Walter B. Cannon:The Life and Times of a Young Scientist. Saul Benison, A. Clifford Barger and Elin L. Wolfe. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987. 506 pp. $30.00.


This biographical history is as interesting to read as a suspense novel, containing elements of personal and institutional conflict and intrigue, local and national politics, international conflict and cooperation, and scientific, educational and administrative creativity. A foreword by Howard E. Morgan, former president of the American Physiological Society, puts the drama in its proper setting of a seminal period in the development of modern, scientifically based medicine.

The book's historical scholar ship, scientific insight and perspective, and archival completeness and ingenuity are due to the superb qualifications of the authors—Saul Benison, professor of history at the University of Cincinatti; A. Clifford Barger, professor of physiology and one of Cannon's successors as chairman of the department of physiology at Harvard Medical School; and Elm L. Wolfe, archivist and associate editor of the W.B. Cannon Project at the Countway Library, Harvard Medical School.

The central figure in the drama is of course Walter B. Cannon, a pioneer in the modern approach to medical education, and contributor to the development of physiology in terms of both new concepts and their applications to human health. In fact the key to the drama is the multidimensional quality of Can non's personality. His brilliantly creative but methodical approach to scientific problems, his generosity to students and colleagues, his scrupulous attention to detail in re search and administration, his recognized abilities as an arbitrator of disputes, his devoted concern for family and friends, and the selfless ness with which all his affairs were conducted are legendary.

Although Cannon is central, the book is rich in material concerning other people and institutions, particularly those at Harvard. For some readers the extent of the material dealing with Harvard may at first seem excessive, but the detail is necessary to understanding and following the threads of the drama. For example, without Cannon's support as a negotiator the medical school might not have had a graduate student program in 1908 when Roy Hoskins became Cannon's first graduate student. Hoskins, being a Ph.D. candidate rather than a medical student, did not accept assignment of a research topic in one of Cannon's fields of interest, but insisted on a topic of his own choosing in endocrinology. As was typical, Cannon, though feeling ill-prepared to supervise research in a field in which he was not expert, let Hoskins find his own way.

Without the connection to Hoskins, Cannon later acknowledged, he might never have explored the field of the relations of emotions to bodily functions. These studies led to the scientific concepts for which Cannon is most widely known. His theory that evolution has provided animals and humans with a system for mobilizing bodily resources in emergency situations—"flight or fight"—was a keystone in the concept of integrative function in physiology expressed in Cannon's important book The Wisdom of the Body. Today the integrative function of the neuroendocrine mechanisms is prominent in the forefront of biological and medical investigation.

Walter B. Cannon: The Life and Times of a Young Scientist should be of great interest to many beyond specialists in physiology, medicine and history of science. It should be read carefully by everyone concerned with public policy and ad ministration of science because of its clear picture of the complex mi lieu in which science must prosper.
Reynolds, a physiologist, is director of the Centennial Task Force of the American Physiological Society, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814. He previously served as executive secretary of APS and director of bioscience at NASA.

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