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Cannon, Ida Maude

in: People

Ida Cannon (1877-1960) – Social Worker, Nurse, Author and Founder of Medical Social Work


Ida M. Cannon, Medical Social Work Pioneer
Ida M. Cannon, Medical Social Work Pioneer
Photo: NASW Foundation

Introduction: Ida Maud Cannon was responsible for developing the first social work department in a hospital in the United States. Convinced that medical practice could not be effective without examining the link between illness and the social conditions of the patient Cannon diligently worked at creating the field of medical social work. During her long career, she worked as a nurse, a social worker, Chair of Social Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, author of a seminal book in the medical social work field, organizer of the American Association of Hospital Social Workers, consultant to hospitals and city administrations throughout the United States, professor and designer of a training curriculum for medical social workers.

Background: Ida Cannon was born in Milwaukee July 27, 1877, the third of four children of Colbert Cannon, an official of the Great Northern Railroad and his wife, Wilma (nee Demio) Cannon, who died when Ida was four. The family moved to St. Paul where she attended St. Paul High School. While her father, Colbert Cannon, had a stable position with the railroad, he nurtured an ambition to be a doctor and invested heavily in building a large library of medical books.  The father’s passion for medicine played a significant role influencing her life as well as that of her brother Walter Bradford who attended Harvard College and Medical School and went on to became a widely respected physiologist.

Professional Career: Ida Cannon obtained her nursing education at the City and County Hospital Training School in St. Paul, graduating in 1898. After working as a nurse for two years, she began studies in sociology at the University of Minnesota. It was there that Cannon heard a lecture given by Jane Addams about the living conditions of the poor that would change her life. Her three subsequent years as a visiting nurse for the St. Paul Associated Charities deepened her understanding of the connections between poverty, occupation and disease. To learn more, Cannon enrolled in the School for Social Workers in Boston (later known as Simmons College). Needing a place to stay during her studies, she moved into the Cambridge household of her brother, Walter Bradford, and his family. It was a home in which she would remain for the rest of her life, greatly enjoying her relationships with her brother, his wife and their children.

Having graduated from the Boston School for Social Work, Cannon went to work for Dr. Richard Cabot at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Her goal was to “make medical care effective” and “cure consumption”.  In 1907, Cannon was named “Head Worker” and, in 1914, “Chief of Social Service”, a position she held for thirty-one years.

Begun in the outpatient clinics, MGH’s Social Services focused on patients with tuberculosis (the scourge of the era), with neurological problems, with venereal disease, unmarried pregnant girls, and children with orthopaedic problems. Traveling  extensively, Cannon brought her ideas to hospitals throughout the United States. She helped develop a standardized program for training medical social workers. Cannon contributed to the firm establishment of medical social work.  In 1912 she collaborated with Simmons College in offering a course in medical social work and in supervising field instruction at area hospitals.  She continued this until 1925.

Trained in nursing and social work, Cannon insisted that social workers needed specialized medical knowledge along with firm grounding in casework. She struggled with what to measure, the right to document social work activity in the patient’s medical chart, how to collaborate with physicians and nurses, while insisting that the affluent suburbs not dump their sickest, neediest patients on the inner city hospitals. She studied the effects of occupation on disease and worried that in the immensity of individual need, there would be insufficient time and energy for social action.

Cannon hired the department’s first educational director, Harriet Bartlett. Ms. Bartlett wrote the first textbook, Social Work Practice in the Health Field, and was also a well-known social researcher. She created educational programs, which helped social workers clarify the function and quality of their work, and to broaden their professional growth. She also established supervisory processes, social work student fieldwork, and clinical case conferences. Her work and expertise became recognized beyond the department and the hospital and was implemented in the broader field of medical social work.

In 1913 she wrote Social Work in Hospitals in which she states that the focus of social work’s efforts should be on the confluence of interacting factors. According to Cannon, the central purpose of medical social work was to treat the social complications of physical disease using the medical diagnosis, the social situation of the patient, and the well-grounded principles of sociology.

“The medical Social Service movement,” she said in a 1930 address, “recognizes that there should be within the hospital … someone definitely assigned to represent the patient’s point of view … and to work out with the physician, an adaptation of the medical treatment in the light of the patient’s social condition”.

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.

In recognition for her labors in successfully building the medical social work field, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Boston University and an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from the University of New Hampshire. Ida Cannon lived until the age of 80.

Sources: NASW Foundation, Social Work Pioneers:

Biographical Dictionary of Social Welfare in America, Walter I. Trattner, Ed., Greenwood Press, New York, Westport. 1986.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2012). Ida Cannon (1877-1960) – Social worker, nurse, author and founder of medical social work. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from