Walter B. Cannon, MD:
Soaring to New Heights, Literally

by Danielle deLeon

Members of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Stanford University Medical Center are no strangers to soaring to new heights, as their rich tradition of excellence and pioneering firsts make the department one of the top cardiothoracic programs in the nation.

But one doctor in particular also reaches new heights outside the office, quite literally. In his free time, Walter B. Cannon, MD, clinical professor of thoracic surgery, heads for the glider field, assembles his German-built fiberglass glider, launches behind a towing airplane, and heads for the puffy cumulus clouds.

Gliders differ from airplanes in that the typical glider lacks an engine. Because of this, gliders are powered only by gravity and air currents. For the initial takeoff, gliders are towed into the air by a powered aircraft. After reaching the desired altitude (about 2,000 feet), the glider pilot releases the tow rope and glides slowly, searching for rising air (known as a thermal). If the glider pilot can find rising air that is rising faster than the glider is descending, the glider will rise. A typical flight lasts for a few hours and often covers many miles with average speeds of 70 miles per hour. [1]

Cannon first became interested in anything that flies at a very early age.

“It started with model airplanes and gliders that I built, flew, crashed, and repaired. I had an intense yearning to fly but needed to be 16 years old to fly airplanes. However, by chance I learned that I could fly gliders alone at the age of 14. There was a glider school in Elmira, New York. My father and I flew there the summer I turned 14. I flew solo in a glider at that school, and the rest is history.”

When not flying for pure enjoyment, Cannon is an award-winning competitor.

“When I had a few hundred hours of glider flying, I began to fly competitions, first at the local level and subsequently at the national level or the equivalent of the Olympic trial level. I have placed as high as third in the nation and numerous times in the top ten.”

These competitions are usually won based on speed around triangular courses using GPS devices to record the flights.

Cannon with his wife, Irene, at the National Gliding Championships in Hobbs, New Mexico

Achievements in gliding have been marked by the awarding of badges since the 1920s. Higher badges follow the standards set down by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). The Gold and Diamond Badges require pilots to fly the highest and furthest, and a pilot who has completed the three parts of the Diamond Badge has flown 300 km (~186 miles) to a pre-defined goal, has flown 500 km (~311 miles) in one flight, and gained 5,000 m (~16,404 ft) in height. [2]

Cannon holds the FAI international soaring Diamond “C” award number 64 in the US, which is approximately the 500th award presented in the world. This feat required that he meet the most stringent standards, and he had to do so by the age of 24.

Cannon’s interest in gliding extends to the sport’s origins, and he is deeply involved in the history and restoration of antique gliders.

“I am on the board of trustees of the US National Soaring Museum, which is the best-known gliding museum in the United States and is located in Elmira, New York. Because of my interest in the history of gliding, I am continually restoring antique gliders. I have restored five so far. One of them is hanging prominently in the National Soaring Museum. I am presently restoring a 1959 glider, which was a state-of-the-art machine in the early sixties.”

Cannon finds restoration not only fascinating but therapeutic.

“I look upon the restorations as cheaper than a psychiatrist with something to show for the long hours of work.”

Cannon’s plans for the future are, not surprisingly, a continuation of his past and present. He has no intention of slowing down.

“My future goal in gliding is to enjoy as many competitions as I can for as long as I can. I presently own a modern racing carbon fiber and fiberglass glider. It is a state-of-the-art, German-built glider with a 50-foot wing span. It has very sophisticated instruments, with a computer, radio, and an oxygen system. It is a truly high-performance glider, much like a Porsche is to cars.”

Cannon graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Medical School in 1969, completed his entire residency at Stanford in 1975, and joined the Palo Alto Medical Clinic (PAMC). In 1990, Cannon joined Dr. Jim Mark part-time on the Stanford University Thoracic Surgery Service. He is still part of that service but resigned from the PAMC in 2006 to become a co-director of Operating Room Services at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

Richard Whyte, MD, professor of thoracic surgery and Cannon’s predecessor as medical director of Operating Room Services, has worked closely with Cannon over the last 10 years and has seen what an integral team member Cannon is in terms of his numerous contributions to resident training and clinical care.

“Walter is a great colleague and educator. It’s remarkable how he’s been able to bridge the gap between the general surgery and thoracic programs at both the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the University. For over 30 years, his collaborative and dedicated interaction with the residents and his colleagues has been a tremendous resource to us all. He’s a stellar person.”

Cannon Family Notables

Cannon’s grandfather, Walter Bradford Cannon I, is often considered the father of modern physiology. He was the professor of physiology at the Harvard Medical School for over four decades. He and the Russian physiologist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, are credited with the physiological and psychological description of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Cannon I introduced the concept of and coined the term “homeostasis.” 

Cannon’s father, Bradford, was a professor of plastic surgery at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. Among his many accomplishments was his development of a new approach to the treatment of severe burns. His techniques are the basis for burn treatment to this day.

Cannon’s wife, Irene, is from Switzerland and was trained in Switzerland and the USA as a pediatrician and an adolescent medicine specialist. She worked for over 20 years as a staff physician at the Stanford Student Health Center. She is now retired. Walter and Irene have four children and seven grandchildren.

Cannon’s interest in flying continues with his sons. His older son, Lukas, is an airplane and glider pilot and is in the corporate fueling business. His youngest son, Christopher, is also an airplane and glider pilot and is presently a Marine FA-18 fighter pilot. He has been deployed to Iraq three times. His first two deployments involved flying his jet off carriers in the Persian Gulf—an occupation not for the faint of heart. On his second deployment, he was recognized as the second-best pilot of all of the squadron pilots for his landings on the carrier. His last deployment was as a forward air controller on the ground. He is now back at Miramar near San Diego as an FA-18 instructor, teaching all aspects of flying such a sophisticated machine.


[1] Gliding competitions. (2008, January 11). Retrieved January 25, 2008, from

[2] Gliding. (2008, January 22). Retrieved January 25, 2008, from

Walter B. Cannon, MD