Alexander Forbes, Walter Cannon, and Science-Based Literature

In A. Stiles, S. Finger & F. Boller (eds.), Progress in Brain Research Vol. 205: Literature, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Historical and Literary Connections. Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp. 241-256 (2013)
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Abstract

The Harvard physiologists Alexander Forbes (1882-1965) and Walter Bradford Cannon (1871-1945) had an enormous impact on the physiology and neuroscience of the twentieth century. In addition to their voluminous scientific output, they also used literature to reflect on the nature of science itself and its social significance. Forbes wrote a novel, The Radio Gunner, a literary memoir, Quest for a Northern Air Route, and several short stories. Cannon, in addition to several books of popular science, wrote a literary memoir in the last year of his life, The Way of an Investigator. The following will provide a brief overview of the life and work of Forbes and Cannon. It will then discuss the way that Forbes used literature to express his views about the changing role of communications technology in the military, and his evolving view of the nervous system itself as a kind of information-processing device. It will go on to discuss the way that Cannon used literature to articulate the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, as well as to contribute to the philosophy of science, and in particular, to the logic of scientific discovery. Finally, it will consider the historical and philosophical value of deeper investigation of the literary productions of scientists.

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Justin Garson
Hunter College (CUNY)

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