John Jacob Cannell was born in Washington DC on June 21, 1948. During his college years he had a penchant for social activism and was deeply involved in working against the Vietnam War. While at University of Maryland he helped organize the “March on Washington” and also demonstrated against the war at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. In 1969, he dropped out of college to join the governments Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program. Quickly dismayed with VISTAs ineffectiveness, Cannell returned to University of Maryland where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in Zoology. 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.