Joseph Cannon was born in Providence in 1911, the son of General Francis Cannon and Mary (Milligan) Cannon. He attended Technical High School and graduated from Brown University in 1932. He chose a career in medicine, and in 1936 he earned his degree cum laude from Tufts Medical School. Dr. Cannon then joined the Army Medical Corps, served his internship at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and graduated from the Army Medical School in 1938.
In World War II, Dr. Cannon served in Alaska, where he was responsible for establishing and commanding several Army hospitals. During this effort, he was seriously injured in a plane crash and spent two years in Denver, Colorado recuperating.
During that time, Dr. Cannon met his first wife Mary L. Greenagle, and he retired from the military in 1946 with the rank of colonel. He stayed in Colorado after the war and servedas Deputy Director of the Colorado State Health Department. His work in this field of medicine prompted Dr. Cannon to study at the Harvard School of Public Health from which he earned a master’s degree in 1954.
In 1958, Cannon returned to Providence and assumed the position of Assistant Director of Curative Services with the former state Department of Social Welfare, and in 1961 he became Director of the Department of Health. In 1966 he consolidated all local boards of health into one central state department and made it one of the most effective in the nation.
Throughout his career, Dr Cannon vigorously protected his staff from political interference while also maintaining excellent relationships with the executive and legislative branches. As one observer noted “either he’s above politics or very good at it.” He never compromised the professional integrity of his department for politics.
Dr. Cannon’s achievements were bold and innovative. Under his leadership Rhode Island became the first state to conduct a statewide poliomyelitis immunization program in 1963, and in succeeding years he directed statewide immunization programs to eliminate measles and rubella. Rhode Island also became the first state to record statistics on natality, morbidity, and mortality on a census tract basis, giving rise to the state’s reputation as the “health data capital of the United States.”
As an expert administrator, Dr Cannon was able to obtain 50% federal funding for the building that now houses the Department of Health. It was subsequently (and fittingly) named in his honor. Included among his many achievements are the establishment of the Rhode Island Renal Institute and the Child Development Center at Rhode Island Hospital. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Brown University School of Medicine.
Dr. Cannon’s tenure as director of the Rhode Island Department of Health spanned twenty three years and five governors, from his appointment in 1961 to his retirement in 1984.
His list of honors and appointments is huge and includes the McCormack Award, the highest honor of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Dr Cannon was widowed in 1977. He then met and married his second wife, Mary Ellen McCabe. He has two sons by his first marriage: Joseph F. Cannon and David A. Cannon.
Dr. and Colonel Cannon died in 1989 and was buried with honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
- General Richard J. Valente (Ret.)
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