Sir Charles Scott Sherrington was 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 in 1932. He discovered “Sherrington’s Law” and 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 for Norwich School’s English artists was influential in Charles’s life, proof of which was his passion for art that he kept for the rest of his life.
In 1871, Charles attended Queen Elizabeth’s School, Ipswich where the famous English poet Thomas Ashe taught. He inspired Charles to form an interest in travelling and gave him an appreciation for the classics. Charles proved to be very athletic and played football for Ipswich Town Football Club. Later on, he also played rugby and was be part of Oxford’s rowing team.
In 1876, Sherrington attended St. Thomas’s Hospital in London and started studying medicine. By 1878, he had passed the Royal College of Surgeons’ primary examination. He also gained a fellowship in the same institution the following year. He started pursuing physiology in Cambridge under Sir Michael Foster in 1879. Sir Michael Foster is now known as the “Father of British Physiology”, proof that Sherrington was trained by the best.
Sherrington then attended Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University in 1880, earning his Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1884. In 1885, he received a First Class in the Natural Sciences Tripos achieving top marks in human anatomy, botany and physiology.
In 1881 Sherrington’s path in the field of medicine and the sciences was cemented. Sherrington attended a medical conference where Sir Michael Foster gave a lecture on the research on the functions of the nerves. A debate followed about the effects of the excisions being done on parts of the brain cortex of monkeys and dogs. The experiments were being performed by Friedrich Goltz and David Ferrier who had opposing views on the issue.
Sherrington and of one of his college tutors, John Newport Langley investigated the opposing opinions and they published their findings in 1884, based on brain surgery they had conducted on a dog. This was Sherrington’s introduction to the world of neurology, the field he was to contribute greatly to in the years to come. He then worked with Goltz in 1884 in Strasbourg.
In 1885, Sherrington travelled as part of a select group to investigate an outbreak of cholera in Spain and the following year he investigated a cholera outbreak in Venice.
Sherrington worked for a year with Robert Koch in Germany and carried out research in bacteriology. This gave Sherrington a good foundation in physiology, morphology, histology, and pathology.
1887 he was appointed Lecturer in Systematic Physiology at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London.
Most Notable Contributions
Sherrington became the superintendent for the University of London’s Brown Institute for Advanced Physiological and Pathological Research in 1891. At this time he researched spinal reflexes and the efferent nerve supply of muscles. He published several papers on his research. He discovered the unique muscles (muscle spindles) that initiate the stretch reflex. He proposed that such a reflex was crucial for balance and posture.
In 1895 Sherrington was appointed as a full professor at the University of Liverpool. He was appointed Holt Professor of Physiology and researched reciprocal innervations and reflexes. He discovered Sherrington’s Law which states that “For every activated neuron of a muscle, there is a corresponding inhibition of the opposing muscle.” He also studied the connection between the brain and the spinal cord by way of the pyramidal tract.
From 1893 to 1897 he studied the distribution of the segmented skin fields and discovered that approximately one third of the nerve fibers in a motor nerve were efferent (away from the central nervous system) and the remainder were afferent (towards the central nervous system).
He gave a prestigious Croonian lecture on his nerve research in 1897.
A compendium of ten of Sherrington’s Silliman lectures that he had given at Yale University the year before was published in 1906 titled “The Integrative Action of the Nervous System”. The book shaped our understanding of the central nervous system.
Sherrington achieved his dream of working at Oxford University in 1913. He was awarded 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.
During the First World War Sherrington’s research work was downsized. He worked for three months at a shell factory and studied industrial fatigue in factories.
At the end of the First World War, his textbook “Mammalian Physiology: a Course of Practical Exercises” for medical students was published. In 1925 he published a wartime poem collection “The Assaying of Brabantius and other Verse”.
In 1940 he published a philosophy book, “Man on His Nature” which was based on a collection of Gifford lectures he had given at the University of Edinburgh in 1937 and 1938.
Sherrington was awarded the Royal Medal in 1905 and the Copley Medal in 1927.
In 1922, he became a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire and in 1924 he was awarded the Order of Merit.
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”.
Personal and Death
Sherrington married Ethel Mary Wright in 1891 and they had a son, Carr E.R. Sherrington.
Sherrington retired from Oxford in 1936 and moved back to Ipswich. He was the Ipswich Museum’s President until his death.
He died of heart failure in March 4, 1952, aged 94.