Cannon, Ida Maud

Ida Maud Cannon
Ida Maud Cannon

Ida Maud Cannon (June 29, 1877-July 8, 1960) was a pioneer in the hospital social service movement which began in Boston in the first decade of the 20th century. She played a pivotal role in developing the theory and practice of medical social work during her 39 years with the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1877, Ida was the third of four children. Her mother, Wilma Denio Cannon, a schoolteacher, died of tuberculosis when Ida was four years old. Her father, Colbert Hanchett Cannon, a railroad man, soon remarried and the family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. He filled his home with good books even though there was often anxiety about money and debt. Thanks to his railroad passes, free travel afforded his children a wide view of the world. He raised them with a thirst for knowledge and a sense of social responsibility. Their religious upbringing was Calvinist.

An ingenious manager, Colbert Cannon rose to become superintendent of transportation for the Great Northern Railroad. He retired at age 60 to pursue his boyhood dream of being a doctor. Graduating from the Chicago School of Homeopathy, he moved on to practice in Oregon. He encouraged Ida and her older brother Walter to go into medicine. Walter graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1900 and joined the faculty.

After reading an article in Harper’s Bazaar by Isabel Hampton Robb, an early advocate of visiting nursing and public health education, Ida decided she should become a nurse. After graduating from high school, she attended the St. Paul City and County Hospital Training School for Nursing, 1896-98. She then worked for the State School for the Feeble-minded in Faribault, Minnesota, 1898-1900, organizing and managing a nursing unit. While there, Cannon came to recognize the importance of the social and psychological aspects of illness. Wanting to better understand these problems, she took classes in sociology and psychology at the University of Minnesota, 1900-01.

Cannon was the first visiting nurse for St. Paul Associated Charities, 1903-06. In her first year she made 1,028 visits to 147 patients. At the dawn of the 20th century, material aid was considered an impediment to rehabilitation. Whenever possible, home visitors limited their services to instruction in hygiene and morality and touted work as a powerful stimulus to health. Seeing firsthand the conditions in which the sick and poor lived reinforced Cannon’s understanding of the interconnections between illness, poverty, and other social ills. Years later, she recalled that “Jane Addams awakened in me, as she did in many, a realization of the gross inconsistencies in our so-called democracy.”

In 1906, following a failed romance, Ida was encouraged by her sister-in-law Cornelia to come east and enroll at the new Boston School for Social Workers. Cornelia soon enticed Ida’s younger sister Bernice to make the same move. In 1910 Ida and Bernice, with brother Walter and his wife Cornelia, jointly rented a big house on the Harvard campus. They lived there for 27 years, an extended family of nine with five children and two maiden aunts. Cornelia, a Radcliffe graduate who went on to become a best-selling author, had been raised Unitarian in St. Paul. During summers Ida often spent time at her “little house” in Franklin, New Hampshire, ninety miles north of Cambridge. Walter and his family had a place nearby.

While still a social work student, Ida Cannon met Dr. Richard Cabot, a prominent Boston doctor who in 1905 had established the first hospital social service department in America at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She first encountered him at an informal philosophical discussion at Professor Josiah Royce’s home in Cambridge. In 1906, after Cabot gave a presentation on the social work program at the MGH, Cannon introduced herself and offered to volunteer on weekends. In 1907 she accepted Cabot’s offer of a paid full-time position as one of the department’s four social workers. A year later she was promoted to head social worker.

As a hospital social worker, Cannon’s front-line clinical casework included patients and families dealing with tuberculosis, venereal disease, industrial accidents, and single parenthood. She began each case with a thorough investigation of the patient’s health, family life, financial situation, living conditions, and capacity for work. She then offered patients a variety of services provided by collaborating agencies, such as lessons about hygiene and self-care, post-discharge transfers to other institutions, financial help, and “friendly and understanding counsel.”

In 1912 Cannon traveled extensively, employed by the Russell Sage Foundation to produce a survey of the roughly 100 hospital social service departments that had been established in the United States since 1905. In Social Work in Hospitals: A Contribution to Progressive Medicine, 1913, she discussed the history of hospital social service, common “medical-social problems,” record-keeping, organization, choice of workers, and community relationships. During this same period she developed the first medical social work curriculum to be offered by a school of social work in the United States. At the Boston School for Social Work (now the Simmons School), she served as director of the hospital social service program from 1912 to 1925, and as instructor until 1945.

Even though Cannon preferred casework to administration, she accepted the position of Chief of Social Service at MGH in 1914. She saw this position as critical to the operation of the department, a “buffer” that would expedite services. The department’s annual caseload had multiplied from 683 patients in 1906 to 2,963 in 1913. It was staffed by 11 paid caseworkers and over 80 volunteers. As Chief, she frequently hosted guests from other states and countries eager to learn about the hospital’s department.

Soon after moving to Cambridge, Ida joined the First Parish Cambridge (Unitarian), where her brother’s family were members. Her older brother Walter influenced her decision to embrace Unitarianism. He had rejected the Calvinist faith during his high school years because it denied the claims of modern science. Like her brother, Ida believed that spiritual exploration and scientific research could not yield meaningful knowledge if pursued independent of one another. She applied this principle to her work in the hospital.

Cannon developed a deep Christian faith that emphasized human action rather than doctrine. As a Unitarian, she saw the church as an important player in community social service. By the 1910s she had grown concerned that the relationship between the church and local social agencies in Boston had weakened. In 1912, at a meeting of the South Middlesex Conference of the Massachusetts Conference of Social Work, she spoke of the need for greater cooperation between Unitarian churches and other charitable agencies: “Social service for the sick is not a new function of the church. But there has come a weakening of the tie between the church and those who would profit by their ministrations. Also there is, with the broadening interest of Unitarian Churches in social service, an opportunity for much helpfulness – not on the basis of denominationalism, but on the basis of human interest and a sense of social responsibility.”

Cannon served on the First Parish Social Service Committee for 20 years, until it disbanded in 1936. In 1938 she helped to found the new Social Relations Committee, which represented a shift in the priorities of the congregation away from social service per se and toward promoting world peace and protecting civil liberties. She continued to attend Josiah Royce’s weekly meetings, mixing there with such Cambridge notables as Alfred North Whitehead, Ernest and Agnes Hocking, Ralph Barton Perry, and Robert Yerkes.

For Cannon religion was a way of living. She strove to apply her faith to her daily work and to live her life in the image of Christ. Every person, she believed, was an indispensable part of God’s plan. It followed that every person had value and was born equal—two of professional social work’s foundational ideas, both then and today. She emphasized every person’s duty to find their own vocation and make a unique contribution to the world.

Although Cannon rarely expressed theological views in her work, she carried on a rich, private dialogue with Cabot and others about faith. She revealed her religious beliefs indirectly in her discussions and writings on social work aims and practice. For her, pursuing one’s vocation without self-consciousness was the path to human perfection and the fulfillment of one’s part in the divine plan. Her reticence on religion also grew from her belief that the physical and social problems of patients had to be alleviated before spiritual or mental rehabilitation could prove effective.

In 1918 Cannon co-founded the American Association of Hospital Social Workers (renamed the American Association of Medical Social Workers in 1934 and incorporated into the National Association of Social Workers in 1955). She was immediately elected vice-president and then served two terms as president. She also worked for the Massachusetts Conference of Social Work, serving as President in 1932. Frequently, she participated in the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. During the 1930s and 40s Cannon was active in state and community affairs. She was a delegate to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, 1930-31; a member of the Massachusetts State Commission to Study Health Laws, 1935-36; board member for the Massachusetts Child Council, 1938-47; and a member of the Advisory Committee on the Medical Care Program of the State Department of Public Health, 1941-45.

Fighting tuberculosis was one of Cannon’s priorities, perhaps owing to her mother’s death from the disease. At the beginning of the 19th Century it was the most common infectious disease with which social workers dealt. Dubbed the “White Plague,” it killed about 150,000 Americans annually. Throughout her career Cannon clamored for studies of the social factors involved. She also favored greater cooperation between hospitals and the state government. She campaigned for more state sanatoria, testified before the legislature, served on the Executive Committee of the Boston Society for the Relief & Control of Tuberculosis, and worked on the Board of Managers of the Cambridge Anti-Tuberculosis Association. She was a trustee of the Massachusetts State Infirmary at Tewksbury, 1939-43, and was a member of a Special Commission to Study the Costs of Patient Care in County Tuberculosis Sanatoria, 1942.

For her generation, Cannon was the symbol of hospital social service. Even today she is celebrated for her remarkable contributions to medical social work. As Harriett Bartlett, one of her MGH colleagues, pointed out in 1975, Cabot conceived the idea of hospital social work, but Cannon put the idea into action.

Cannon was honored with doctoral degrees from the University of New Hampshire, 1937, and Boston University, 1950. In 1959 she was awarded honorary membership in the Institute of Almoners in England and was the recipient of the Lemuel Shattuck Award from the Massachusetts Public Health Association.


Cannon reluctantly retired in 1945, in accordance with MGH’s employee age limit policy, but remained a consultant to the hospital, sharing her wisdom and experience with visitors from all over the world. In retirement Cannon wrote On the Social Frontier of Medicine: Pioneering in Medical Social Service, 1952, and Some Highlights of Fifty Years: Massachusetts Conference of Social Work, 1903-1953, 1953. In 1957, disabled by a stroke, she entered a nursing home. She died there at age 83.


Information about Ida Cannon can be found in the Cannon Family Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in the Richard Clarke Cabot Papers, Harvard University Archives. Additional information is in First Parish Cambridge Records, Andover-Harvard Theological School; the Massachusetts General Hospital Archives; the Massachusetts Conference of Social Work Records in the Simmons College Archives; and the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. The book, Snatched From Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir, by Ida Cannon’s niece Marian Cannon Schlesinger covers Cannon family history, particularly the years when the extended family shared a home. There are short biographies in Social Service Review (1975), Notable American Women: The Modern Period (1980), Modern Healthcare (1997), and in American National Biography (1999).

Article by Amy Dahlberg Chu
Posted October 31, 2006