Lives of the fellows

Charles Scott (Sir) Sherrington

b.27 November 1857 d.4 March 1952
OM(1924) GBE(1922) MB Cantab(1885) MA MD ScD Hon DSc Oxon Manch Harvard Dubl Sheff Hon LLD Toronto Glasg FRS(1893) FRCP(1912) Hon FRCS

Charles Sherrington was born in London, the son of James Sherrington of Yarmouth, and brought up by his stepfather, Dr. Caleb Rose of Ipswich. He was given a classical education at Ipswich Grammar School and made his first acquaintance with science as a medical student at Edinburgh. He transferred his studies to Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated in natural sciences, and received his clinical training at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. Having taken the M,B. degree in 1885, he spent a couple of years abroad, investigating cholera in Spain and Italy on behalf of the Royal Society and studying at Berlin and Strasbourg. He returned in 1887 to a lectureship in physiology at St. Thomas’s and four years later succeeded Horsley as professor-superintendent of the Brown Institution. Notable researches on nerve-roots and reflexes earned him election as an F.R.S. in 1893, and two years afterwards he was appointed to the Holt chair of physiology at Liverpool. Here in the next decade his fame was carried abroad by outstanding work on stimulations of the brain of the great apes and on the reflex activity of the spinal cord, announced in his Silliman lectures at Yale in 1904 and later published with the title The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. Here, too, by his reorganisation of the University’s Thomson Yates Laboratory and the founding of new departments, he showed that his scientific brilliance was rivalled by administrative gifts of a high order.

In 1913, Sherrington left Liverpool to become Waynflete professor of physiology at Oxford. During the ensuing war years, although he was able to add a vacation job in a munitions factory to his other duties, he was largely preoccupied with work for various Government bodies such as the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, of which he was chairman in 1918. It was not until after the War that he resumed his research work and was able to supervise the re-equipment of his laboratories. He published in 1919 his book on Mammalian Physiology. Until his retirement in 1936 he continued to revise and expand scientific knowledge of reflexes, cortical localisation, and the discharge mechanisms of the nervous impulse. Many of his observations were embodied in Reflex Activity of the Spinal Cord (1932), written jointly with four collabor-tors. In old age his philosophy of life found expression in his Gifford lectures of 1937-38 at Edinburgh, published as Man on his Nature (1940), and in a further study, The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (1946).

Sherrington’s achievements were accorded widespread recognition. He was awarded a Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1905 and Copley Medal in 1927 and was President of the Society from 1920 to 1925. The Society and the Royal College of Physicians jointly presented him with the first Conway Evans Prize in 1927. The College had previously awarded him the Baly Medal in 1899 and had invited him to deliver the Oliver-Sharpey Lecture in 1909 and the Croonian Lectures in 1913. He served as a member of the Medical Research Council for a term. From the State he received the honours of G.B.E. in 1922 and O.M. in 1924. The Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded jointly to him and E. D. Adrian in 1932.

Described on his ninetieth birthday by J. F. Fulton of Yale as "the most profound student of the nervous system the world has yet known", Sherrington virtually founded modern knowledge of the working of the brain and spinal cord, by unravelling the mechanism responsible for integrating the individual units of the nervous system. He owed much to a remarkable intellectual grasp and farsighted scientific imagination. Yet he was also a skilled laboratory worker and a more than competent administrator. He had a lucid and distinctive literary style and was a shrewd and frank, but courteous, critic of others. His Assaying of Brabantius (1925) bore witness to his talent as a poet, and he was a student of Latin and of Spanish literature.

Sherrington married in 1892 Ethel Mary, daughter of John Ely Wright of Preston Manor, Suffolk, and had one son. He died at Eastbourne in his ninety-fifth year.

G H Brown

[Lancet, 1952; B.M.J., 1952; Times, 6, 7, 12, 17 Mar. 1952; Manchester Guardian, 6 Mar. 1952]

(Volume IV, page 523)

<< Back to List