Six Dr Canns and how they paid it forward for the health of Bermuda
In 1873, Somerset saw the birth of one of its most dynamic and historically important residents — John William Cann. His legacy in the history of educational benefits for Black students and the contribution of his descendants is noteworthy.
John William Cann was the third of seven children born to Robert James Cann, a seaman, and Frances Harriett Burrows-Cann, of Hog Bay Level, Sandys.
There was no record found of his early education; however, we do know that he was accepted into Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, the first private Black medical school in the South, which was founded in 1856 for African-Americans. He was financially supported by his brothers until he graduated in 1897 at the age of 24.
The newly qualified Dr Cann returned to Bermuda, where he is recorded as the sixth medical doctor registered to practise here. The next year, he married Isadore Campbell, of St David’s, and raised four children. His medical practice in Somerset flourished and his skills were sought after throughout the island.
In 1911, he was elected to the House of Assembly to represent Sandys Parish. His election success coincided with upsetting events in Bermuda’s Black history created by the Bermuda Development Group. One was the removal of Black people from their homes and land in Tucker’s Town; the other centred around the removal of Blacks from the land around Cambridge Beaches in Sandys. Dr Cann recognised there was a shortage of Black lawyers to fight these and many similar cases. He believed that education was the key to the future of his race and became even more determined to educate his children, and encouraged others to do likewise.
He managed a busy medical practice and maintained a farm on which his children were required to assist. Very few of his patients could afford to pay for his services in cash and often settled their bills with produce. He had a kind, understanding, jovial personality that endeared him to the community.
His second son, Eustace, born in 1905, attended Mrs Trott’s private school in Somerset and The Berkeley Institute. He was known to be an extremely confident, highly intelligent young man. He sat the examination for the Bermuda Government Scholarship and, although he was successful, was awarded no scholarship because of his race. No Black student, despite academic excellence had ever been awarded this scholarship.
In Eva Hodgson’s book, Second Class Citizens; First Class Men, it states that the Governor, Sir Joseph J. Asser, was heard to say: “I am sure that he should have won it because he was a very clever young man. However, he did not.” When Dr Cann heard of this, he was enraged and immediately drove his horse and buggy to Government House to confront the Governor and demand the injustice be rectified. As a result of his persistence, he was successful in the passing of legislation that established four technical scholarships entitled The Bermuda Scholarship Act of 1924, created especially for “Coloured boys”.
He relentlessly emphasised the importance of Black parents educating their children and recommended they attend the predominantly Black American universities, which were more affordable than British universities. Many heeded his advice and sent their children off to Howard University in Washington, a private, federally chartered historically Black university founded in 1867.
When Eustace Cann received and accepted the Bermuda Technical Scholarship, many were upset. They believed the name “technical” was insulting and the funding inadequate for candidates who were to study medicine.
In 1925, Bermuda was devastated by the untimely death of John W. Cann.
He was returning home from visiting a patient when he suffered a stroke and died at the age of 52. The Somerset community was still mourning the death one year before of the other Somerset physician, Richard Packwood.
Isadore Cann was left to educate the children. Eustace Cann had not completed his studies and neither had his two brothers, but she was determined and struggled on to accomplish what her husband had set out to do. Dr Cann had not only been the parish physician, but had represented Sandys in the House of Assembly from 1911 to 1925.
His niece, the late Elsie Cann-Bascombe, described him as a “physician, a statesman and a devoted member of the AME Church”.
Braxton Fancourt Cann, MD, born in 1900, was the eldest son of John W. Cann. He attended The Berkeley Institute and in 1924 gained his BSc from Wilberforce University, an historically Black university founded in 1856 in a unique collaboration between the Cincinnati Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the AME Church. It was the first university owned and operated by African-Americans.
Braxton spent one year at McGill University in Canada before entering Howard University, where he received his medical degree in 1930. He interned for one year at Provident Hospital in Baltimore before moving to Cincinnati with his wife and opening a successful medical practice.
He was the first Black doctor to be appointed to the medical staff of Cincinnati General Hospital and the first Black clinical instructor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. He served for many years on the staff of the Catherine Booth Hospital, and for 30 years was clinician and director of the Shoemaker Clinic. In 1946, he was appointed to the Cincinnati Board of Health.
Dr Cann grew up in a family that stressed the importance of religion and civic duty. He and his wife, Reber, were active in the civil rights movement and life members of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. He was a trustee of the AME Church at Central State University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate. He was a 33rd-Degree Member of the Scottish Rite Prince Hall Masons and the Ohio Past Grand Master of the Lodge. He was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
When he died in 1973, the Cincinnati Health Clinic was renamed the Dr Braxton F. Cann Memorial Centre.
Braxton Cann was the grandfather of well-known Bermudian, Conchita Williams-Ming
Eustace Adolph Cann, was the second son of John W. Cann. He enjoyed cricket and is recorded as having played for the Somerset Cup Match team of 1923, scoring 23 runs.
After graduating from Wilberforce University, he moved on to Ohio State for a year of pre-med and complete his medical degree at the Howard University College of Medicine in 1932. He interned at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington and returned to Bermuda the next year with his American wife, Edith. He set up his medical practice in the same office as his late father at Gable Court in Somerset.
He served on the management committee of Somerset Cricket Club and was chairman of the board at Sandys Secondary School.
In 1938, following in the footsteps of his father and before the advent of party politics, he was elected to parliament, representing Sandys Parish.
He was one of the few Black doctors allowed associate privileges at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital. At the completion of the three-year period required for him to gain full privileges, he was suddenly informed that to be appointed a full member of staff, it was now necessary for him to submit a full report on every patient he had treated in the hospital during the previous three years.
In the 1950s, Dr Cann is listed among the founding members in Bermuda of the Epsilon Theta Lambda Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
He never wavered from challenging the Government on its use of funds for the purposes of maintaining segregation. He continuously chastised and reminded them of blatant inequalities relating to the Black population, particularly in areas of education, healthcare, and workers’ and voting rights.
In 1958, there was a debate in Parliament where Dr Cann revealed serious inadequacies at KEMH — one of which was a lack of beds, which was jeopardising lives. Often, he had to wait five to six months to admit a patient.
He served two five-year terms in Parliament before voluntarily stepping down in 1948. In 1954, he was appointed to the Legislative Council, now known as the Senate, and in 1962 he was appointed to the Executive Council, the forerunner to Cabinet.
In 1963, the Governor, Sir Julian Gascoigne, signed the legal documentation making universal franchise a reality. Dr Cann had fought for equal voting rights throughout his political career and in that very same year, shortly after the passing of the historic legislation, he died suddenly at age 58. Within a month, the death was announced of his 56-year-old friend and colleague in the Legislative Council, W.L. Tucker CBE. They had been the only two Black members in the Legislative Council.
Millard Meharry Cann BSc, DDS was the youngest of John W. Cann’s children. He attended West End Primary School and The Berkeley Institute. He graduated from Wilberforce University with a BSc Honours degree and in 1930 was awarded the Bermuda Technical Scholarship to study dentistry at Meharry University, graduating as a gold medallist and Forsyth Scholar in 1934. In 1935, he returned and was registered to practice dentistry in Bermuda. The next year his wife, Donzleigh, who was also a dentist, joined him in his practice on Church Street in Hamilton. Millard Cann died in 1987.
Braxton F. Cann Jr, MD, was the grandson of John W. Cann. He grew up in Cincinnati and was educated at Howard University, where he received a BSc and his medical degree. He completed his surgical internship at Cincinnati Hospital and Medical Centre. Dr Cann specialised in otolaryngology, an area of medicine specialising in disorders that affect the head and neck, often called an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist. In 1981, he was listed as president of the American Academy of Otolaryngology. Dr Cann served as a captain in the US Air Force at Westover Air Force Base, where he was head of the Otolaryngology Department. Braxton F. Cann Jr MD died in 2019.
John William Flynn Cann MD is the son of Eustace Cann. He attended The Berkeley Institute and Worcestershire Academy, Massachusetts. He received his BA degree from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and his medical degree from the Howard University College of Medicine. He completed postgraduate work in paediatrics at Howard and in public health at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where in 1979 he received a master’s degree.
While at Howard University, Dr. Cann was a teaching assistant for the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health and a teaching co-ordinator in paediatrics at the District of Columbia General Hospital, Washington.
In 1979, John W.F. Cann returned to Bermuda to fill the position of Medical Officer and later the role of Chief Medical Officer within the Ministry of Health and Social Services. He immediately created a highly trained team of professionals to work with him in promoting preventive health education and the importance of vaccinations to protect the Bermudian population. He implemented the Aids awareness campaign and the smoking awareness campaign, which eventually led to the banning of smoking in enclosed public spaces.
He effectively promoted health and nutrition education within the school system and joined with Caribbean counterparts to introduce standard care in diabetes and hypertension. After almost 30 years with the Ministry of Health, Dr Cann retired, leaving Bermuda with a healthcare system and team that had prepared the groundwork for the necessary and important policies and procedures that have endured and efficiently carried us through this Covid pandemic.
• Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons is a retired nurse, writer and historian. With thanks to Linda Abend and Dianne Hunt. Photographs courtesy of John Cann
The Bermuda Recorder (1932-1935)
Heritage Magazine: 3 Generations of Cann Doctors by Connie Cann-Williams (1981)
Second Class Citizens; First Class Men by Eva N. Hodgson PhD (1988)
CARE 100 Years of Hospital Care in Bermuda by J. Randolf Williams (1994)
Lafayette McDonald Voice (2014)
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