Born in Nashville, Cantrell completed bachelors and master's degrees at Vanderbilt University, and earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia. In 1949 he joined the Centre faculty and taught for 40 years before retiring in 1989. Arriving first as a temporary replacement while drama professor West T. Hill was on a leave of absence, Cantrell then served a three-year stint as director of admissions. Back in the classroom, he taught Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, coached debate, encouraged young writers as sponsor of Obiter Scripta and Coffee and Cake (campus literary magazines), chaired the English program, and took students to Great Britain on a regular basis. Cantrell's love of England began during World War II when he spent several months in Cornwall recovering from wounds received during battle in Germany. A machine gunner with the Ninth Infantry Division, he was seriously injured during the Battle of Huertgen Forest. Cantrell was named Cowan Professor of English in 1975, an honorary member of Centre's chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1973, and the Hughes Award for extraordinary teaching in 1983. After retiring, he led alumni tours of Great Britain and was a regular contributor to the Centre’s alumni magazine. In 1997, J. David Grissom, Class of 1960, established the Paul L. Cantrell Professorship in Humanities. Cantrell died June 7, 2000.