NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Ida Cannon (1877-1960)
In 1905, Ida Maud Cannon went to work for Dr. Richard Cabot at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Having graduated from the Boston School for Social Work, Cannon came to "make medical care effective" and "cure consumption". In 1907, Cannon was named "Head Worker" and, in 1915, "Chief of Social Service", establishing the first organized social work department in a hospital. She retired from the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1945.
Begun in the outpatient clinics, 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. Travelling extensively, Cannon brought her ideas to hospitals throughout the United States. She helped develop a standardized program for training medical social workers. In 1918 Cannon founded the American Association of Hospital Social Workers.
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 needs, there would be insufficient time and energy for social action.
"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".
On Ida Maud Cannon's desk stood a picture of the dodo bird from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with the quotation, "the best way to explain it is to do it!"