John Jacob Cannell was born in Washington, DC on June 21, 1948. Understanding why he founded the Council begins with an understanding on his interest and background in activism.
During his college years he had a penchant for social activism and was deeply involved in working against the Vietnam War. While at the University of Maryland he helped organize the “March on Washington” and also demonstrated against the war at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. He finished up his undergraduate work at the University of Maryland where he graduated in Zoology and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Cannell then went on to medical school at the University of North Carolina. After a year of a surgery internship at the University of Utah and four years of practicing itinerant emergency medicine, he began as a general practitioner in the coalfields of Appalachia.
The Black Lung debate
In 1983 Dr. Cannell started the Cannell Clinic, Inc. in Flat Top, West Virginia. It wasn’t long before he noticed that all of his coal-mining patients smoked cigarettes, prompting him to start an anti-smoking campaign. His efforts included asking businesses not to sell cigarettes, running television ads and refusing to accept patients into his clinic unless they stopped smoking. The New York Times took notice and ran a story on his anti-smoking activities in February of 1988.
Cannell had to give up on his efforts against smoking. In West Virginia, coalminers would often smoke in order to get Black Lung and enroll in the Black Lung disability fund. Coal miners who have never smoked often do not have the severe pulmonary function deterioration found in smoking miners, and thus no Black Lung.
Cannell lobbied the members of the West Virginia Medical Society, asking for a resolution to stop using pulmonary function testing to award Black Lung benefits and instead endorse years of service as the basis for receiving the benefit, to put an end to smoking encouragement. Unfortunately, this was to no avail.
Lake Woebegone and fraudulent testing
It wasn’t much longer until Cannell found a new cause. In the late ’80s, the Beckley Register/Herald ran a story stating that all 55 West Virginia counties were above the national average on commercial elementary standardized achievement. Cannell read the stories and decided to do some investigating.
Upon researching “normed referenced” commercial elementary achievement tests, Cannell discovered that the commercial publishers are free to choose their own “norm group” (a group of students said to represent the average which are given the test without any test preparation). The publishers sold the test booklets, the norms, and the answer keys to school officials to reuse each year.
Given this, all 50 States were claiming to be above the national average, because compared to fake test norms, they were. And the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that they did not regulate or oversee commercial achievement testing in the United States. They did not consider it their business as it was the for-profit business of commercial test publishers.
This led Cannell to form the nonprofit, Friends for Education, in 1986, in attempt to reform the education system and bring attention to State’s fraudulent claims of being above the norm. Friends for Education filed consumer fraud complaints with the Attorney Generals of all fifty States. Secretary of Education William Bennett held a special meeting about the issue, Congress held hearings on “Lake Woebegone” testing, and 60 Minutes featured a segment on Cannell’s work exposing the fraudulent testing. The story also got high-profile coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, plus hundreds of other newspapers. It even received segments on the McNeill/Lehrer Show and Sunday Today.
Yet despite all this, nothing changed. The schools continued to give the tests, administrators proudly reported the scores, and newspapers dutifully printed the “above average and improving” stories. It made everyone look great: politicians, school administrators, teachers and parents. It was a perfect con where everyone benefited except the kids being told they are doing okay when they were likely destined to graduate functionally illiterate.
After realizing that publicity would not end the widespread cheating on standardized tests, Cannell went back to begin a psychiatry residency at the University of New Mexico. He was immediately confronted with the McMartin/Bucky day care case in Manhattan Beach, California. After watching TV interviews of the defendants, Cannell immediately suspected that the defendants were entirely innocent and what was happening in Manhattan Beach was the most fatal of all psychiatric conditions, mass hysteria.
Cannell realized that recovered memory therapy (RMT) was at the heart of the hysteria, a form of psychotherapy in which patients recovered memories of abuse that they had no previous memory of. Such therapy resulted in false memory syndrome (FMS) of events that never occurred as well as an epidemic of multiple personality disorder (MPD), a rare disorder historically conceived of as being a hysterical disorder. Unfortunately, many MPD patients believed the psychiatrist conducting the RMT and went home to falsely accuse their parents and others of horrendous acts that never occurred. Cannell teamed up with two Harvard professors to write a peer reviewed paper on RMT.
Many of the RMT and MPD patients eventually retracted their allegations but not before they had hurt others or destroyed their families. Cannell realized these “retractors” had standing to file suit against their recovered memory therapists. Cannell then sponsored two conferences, one in Missoula, Montana, and one in Seattle, Washington, on RMT and FMS. Cannell invited retractors and tort lawyers to hear memory experts from Harvard, John Hopkins, and University of Washington speak about the science of memory and the reality of FMS.
At the conferences, many believers became retractors and the retractors found attorneys while the attorneys found plaintiffs. The attorneys also heard potential expert witnesses (Professors James Hudson and Harrison Pope from Harvard, Professor Paul McHugh, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at John Hopkins, and Professor Elizabeth Loftus, the renowned memory expert) speak. Hundreds of torts (lawsuits) emerged as a consequence of the conferences, exactly Cannell’s goal.
In the late 1990s, Cannell testified in dozens of FMS and MPD cases around the country against fellow psychiatrists who had practiced RMT. The suits were wildly successful resulting in multi-million dollar verdicts for the retractors and against the psychiatrists. Soon, insurance companies stopped covering RMT, which, together with MPD, disappeared, almost overnight. Unlike his anti-smoking and public school reform efforts, Cannell had finally been part of a successful social movement, the end of RMT and MPD.
The formation of the Vitamin D Council
Discouraged over having wasted so much time, effort, and money trying to improve public education and needing a change in his life, Cannell left general practice and went back to school to study psychiatry. He moved to Atascadero, California, in the late 1990s and began working as a psychiatrist at Atascadero State Hospital, the largest hospital in America for the criminally insane. There, he became deeply interested in food and nutrition and their roles in American health.
As Cannell began to study vitamin D, he quickly realized that public recommendation for vitamin D were probably way off the mark. Cannell concluded that if one totally avoids the sun and then strictly follows public recommendations, one will eventually develop vitamin D deficiency.
In 2003, he recruited professional colleagues, friends, and family to form the 501(c)(3) nonprofit the Vitamin D Council and take action to ensure people were getting enough vitamin D.