Charles Sherrington

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington is a notable neurophysiologist, bacteriologist, histologist and pathologist. His discovery of the different functions that neurons played gave him and his colleague, Edgar Douglas Adrian, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He is also known as the one who coined the terms “synapse” and “neurons”.

Early Life and Education

Charles Scott Sherrington was born in Islington, London on November 27, 1857 to James Norton Sherrington, a physician, and Ann Brookes Thurtell. His father died when he was still a child, and his mother eventually remarried. His stepfather, Dr. Caleb Rose, was both a physician and an archaeologist. Rose’s enthusiasm over Norwich School’s English artists became influential in Charles’s life, proof of which is a passion for art that he maintained for the rest of his life. A lot of intellectuals came by their house often as well, which molded Charles’s sense of curiosity. In fact, Charles had already gone through the book “Elements of Physiology” by Johannes Muller even before he started studying.


In 1871, Charles started attending the Ipswich School where the famous English poet Thomas Ashe worked. He inspired Charles to form an interest in travelling and an appreciation for the classics. Charles proved to be very athletic and played football with the Ipswich Town Football Club. He would also play rugby for St. Thomas later on, and would be part of Oxford’s rowing team.

In 1876, Charles attended St. Thomas’s Hospital and started studying medicine. By 1878, he had passed the Royal College of Surgeons’ primary examination. He also passed for a fellowship in the same institution a year after that. He started pursuing physiology in Cambridge under Sir Michael Foster in 1879 after staying in Edinburgh for a brief period of time. Sir Michael Foster is now known as the “Father of British Physiology”, proof that Charles was truly trained by the best. He then attended Gonville and Caius College in 1880, where he got top marks in human anatomy, botany and physiology.

Most Notable Contributions

It was in 1881 that Sherrington’s path in the field of medicine and the sciences was cemented. During a medical congress that was held in London, Sir Michael Foster gave a talk on the study and research that was being done by Sir Charles Bell and other experts in England and in other places around Europe. This experimental research aimed to explain and give a clearer view of the real functions of nerves. This medical congress led to a number of controversies, the biggest of which was about the effects of the excisions being done on parts of the brain cortex of monkeys and dogs in experiments performed by Friedrich Goltz and David Ferrier, who had opposing views on the issue. Goltz believed that there were no localized functions as far as the cortex is concerned, showing dogs whose parts of brains have been removed. Ferrier, who was someone Sherrington greatly admired, argued that there was and used proof of a hemiplegic monkey who became half-paralyzed after a cerebral lesion was done.

Sherrington, as a protégé of one of his college tutors, John Newport Langley, was part of the team who tried to investigate the opposing opinions. They then published their findings in 1884. This was how Sherrington was finally introduced to the world of neurology, the field he was to contribute greatly to in the years to come. He was later on given the chance to work with Goltz, who also became a positive influence in his career.

In 1885, Cambridge University, together with the Association for Research in Medicine and the Royal Society of London, organized a team to travel to Spain and investigate the claims of a Spanish physician. This was a period of time when there were outbreaks of Asiatic cholera, and the physician claims that he had come up with a vaccine that fought the disease. Chosen to become part of the team were Charles Sherrington, J. Graham Brown, and C.S. Roy. Sherrington was immediately skeptical upon hearing of the vaccine. After the investigation, their report greatly discredited what the Spaniard was claiming.

In the same year, Sherrington was given the chance to travel to Berlin to seek help from Rudolf Virchow in studying the specimens of cholera that he had brought home from Spain. He was eventually sent to Robert Koch where he learned more about technique and bacteriology. He stayed with Koch for a year, after which he had greatly expanded his knowledge in physiology, histology, morphology and pathology. With his knowledge, he was again chosen to investigate another cholera outbreak, this time in Italy. This was where he formed an even greater addiction for rare books.

In 1932, Sherrington was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the different functions on neurons. He shared this award with Edgar Douglas Adrian, his colleague and a very good friend. Sherrington was also recognized as the person who coined the terms “neuron” and “synapse”.

Other Contributions and Achievements

Sherrington became the superintendent for the University of London’s Brown Institute for Advanced Physiological and Pathological Research. Because of the large facility, Sherrington was able to work on bigger primates. This was where he discovered that it was the body’s muscle spindles that start the reflex to stretch.

It was in 1895 that Sherrington was appointed as a full professor for the first time. He became Holt Professor of Physiology and continued to work on his research about reciprocal innervations and reflexes. This also signaled the end of his work in pathology.

Sherrington got his dream of working at Oxford University in 1913. He was given the Waynflete Chair of Physiology and was given the chance to teach and train some of the institution’s finest scholars. His students include Nobel laureates Ragnar Granit, Sir John Eccles and Howard Florey, as well as the American pioneer in brain surgery, Harvey Williams Cushing.

Sherrington retired from Oxford in 1936 and moved back to Ipswich. He was the Ipswitch Museum’s President until his death.

He died of heart failure in March 4, 1952.