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Biographical entry Sherrington, Sir Charles Scott (1857 - 1952)

OM 1924; GBE 1922; MRCS 4 August 1884; FRCS by election 14 April 1921; LRCP 1884; FRCP 1912; MB Cambridge 1885; MD 1893; DSc 1904; FRS 1893.

27 November 1857
4 March 1952


Born at Islington on 27 November 1857 eldest of the three sons of Dr James Norton Sherrington of Yarmouth who died young; his widow married Caleb Rose FRCS of Ipswich, and Charles was educated at Ipswich Grammar School, Edinburgh University and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was a pupil of Michael Foster and Frank Balfour and worked with J N Langley and W H Gaskell as demonstrator of physiology. He trained at St Thomas's Hospital, qualified in 1885, and was lecturer in physiology at the medical school for nearly ten years. He was sent by the Royal Society to study Asiatic cholera in Spain (1886) and southern Italy (1887); he made himself known to the leading physiologists Santiago Ramon y Cajal in Spain and Camillo Golgi in Italy, and also studied in France and Germany.

He succeeded Victor Horsley in 1892 as superintendent of the Brown Institute of Animal Pathology and Brown Professor of Pathology in the University of London. Here he worked on antitoxins, rabies, and the comparative anatomy and physiology of the nervous system. In old age he wrote a vivid description in Nature (1948, 161, 266) of his successful injection of the first antidiphtheritic toxin in the supposedly fatal illness of a boy cousin. At St Thomas's he was working on the histology of scar-tissue, on the changes in the blood which accompany local inflammation, and on the metabolism of the body in cancer. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1893.

Sherrington succeeded Francis Gotch as Holt Professor of Physiology at Liverpool in 1895. He held this chair for eighteen years and published much fundamental work on the nervous system. The young American surgeon Harvey Cushing came to Sherrington's laboratory in 1900 for comparative study of anthropoid brains; his subsequent achievement in brain surgery was deeply influenced by Sherrington's teaching.

Sherrington gave the Silliman lectures at Yale in 1904 on The integrative action of the nervous system, maintaining that the role of the nervous system is correlation of the individual activities of all the cells of the body whereby results a new entity, the animal itself. The lectures were published as a book by the Harvard University Press in 1906 and effected a revolution in neurological thought. He made no similar summary of his later work, but his complete achievement was surveyed in the Selected Writings com¬piled under his guidance by D Denny-Brown in 1939. Denny-Brown pointed out that Sherrington's papers published through fifty-five years contain "a mass of systematic observation, faithfully recorded, forming both a classical example of scientific method and a monumental contri-bution to the literature of the nervous system", essentially and always "clinical physiology". Sherrington was much interested in the physiology of vision, and his work influenced the discoveries of J A W Magnus and Ragnar Granit (see Brit J Ophthal 1948, 32, 57).

Sherrington was Waynflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford 1913-36 and he was elected a Fellow of Magdalen. He was President of the Royal Society 1920-25, was created a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of The British Empire in 1922 and admitted to the Order of Merit in 1924. He shared the Nobel prize in physiology with E D Adrian in 1932. The list of his honorary Fellowships fills 22 lines in the Royal Society's Year Book for 1939 and he was an honorary Doctor of 23 universities.

He was an ardent collector of books, and continuously presented valuable and unusual books to numerous libraries. Between 1935 and 1948 he found no less than 58 fifteenth-century books for the already unrivalled collection in the British Museum; he was particularly generous to this College library. While PRS he promoted the compilation of the World List of Scientific Periodicals, an invaluable research tool which has continued to flourish. He took a full share of public duties for the Royal Society, the British Association and various Government committees. He served long on the Medical Research Council and was chairman of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board in 1918. His Rede lecture at Cambridge The Brain and its Mechanism, which emphasised his belief in the duality of mind and matter, his Gifford lectures at Edinburgh in 1937-38 concerning Man on his Nature, which compared the philosophical background of biology at the renaissance and today, and his Vicary lecture at the College, The Endeavour of Jean Fernel, which pursued the same theme, were widely read. Slight, modest and unimpressive, he exerted a stimulating fascination and won affection as well as admiration. His writing was original in style and he coined a number of technical terms such as "synapse" and "pro¬prioceptor" which were readily accepted. He also wrote poems.

Sherrington married in 1892 Ethel Mary younger daughter of John Ely Wright of Preston Manor, Suffolk. Lady Sherrington died at 9 Chadlington Road, Oxford on 13 May 1933, and he died at Eastbourne on 4 March 1952 aged 94, survived by his only son.

Sherrington's recollections of his early years were published in Science, Medicine, and History: essays in honour of Charles Singer (Oxford 1953, 2, 545).

A series of informal photographs of Sherrington was taken by Professor John Beattie in the Librarian's room at the College in 1938 when he was talking with old friends, Harvey Cushing, Arnold Klebs and D'Arcy Power; they are preserved in the library; one was reproduced in Fulton's Harvey Cushing and another in the memoir of Sherrington in the College Annals 1952, 10, 266.

A bibliography compiled by J F Fulton and D Denny-Brown is appended to his Selected Writings, 1939.

Sources used to compile this entry: [There is no complete biography; the foregoing memoir was written from personal acquaintance, with the help of his daughter-in-law Mrs C E R Sherrington. Besides the tributes in the medical and scientific journals at the time of his death, the following provide valuable information and critiques of his work:E D Adrian (Lord Adrian): Notes & Records of the Royal Society 1952, 10, 6. H Cohen (Lord Cohen of Birkenhead): Sherrington, physiologist, philosopher and poet. Liverpool University Press 1958. Ragnar Granit: Charles Scott Sherrington, an appraisal. Edinburgh, Nelson 1966. E G T Liddell: Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 1952, 8, 241].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England