Sir Charles Scott Sherrington OM, GBE, PRS (November 27, 1857 - March 4, 1952) was an English neurophysiologist, histologist, bacteriologist, and a pathologist, Nobel laureate and president of the Royal Society in the early 1920s. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edgar Adrian, 1st Baron Adrian in 1932.
Sherrington's mother re-married to Dr. Caleb Rose of Ipswich. Rose was to have a huge impact upon Sherrington. Rose was note-worthy as both a classical scholar and an archaeologist. At the family's Edgehill House in Ipswich one could find a fine selection of paintings, books, and geological specimens. By way of Rose's interest in the English artists of the Norwich School, Sherrington gained a love of art. Intellectuals frequented the house regularly. It was this environment that fostered Sherrington's academic sense of wonder. Even before matriculation, the young Sherrington had read Johannes Müller's Elements of Physiology. The book was given to Sherrington by his stepfather.
Sherrington entered Ipswich School in 1871. Thomas Ashe, a famous English poet, worked at the school. Ashe served as an inspiration to Sherrington, the former instilling a love of classics and a desire to travel in the latter.
Rose had pushed Sherrington towards medicine. Sherrington first began to study with the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Sherrington also sought to study at Cambridge, but a bank failure had devastated the family's finances. Sherrington elected to enroll at St Thomas' Hospital in September 1876 as a "perpetual pupil". He did so in order to allow his two younger brothers to do so ahead of him. The two studied law there. Medical studies at St. Thomas's Hospital were intertwined with studies at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Physiology was Sherrington's chosen major at Cambridge. There, he studied under the "father of British physiology," Sir Michael Foster.
Sherrington played football for his grammar school, and for Ipswich Town Football Club, rugby St. Thomas's, was on the rowing team at Oxford. During June of 1875, Sherrington passed his preliminary examination in general education at the Royal College. This preliminary exam was required for Fellowship, and also exempted him from a similar exam for the Membership. In April 1878, he passed his Primary Examination for the Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons, and 12 months later the Primary for Fellowship.
In October 1879, Sherrington entered Cambridge as a non-collegiate student. The following year he entered Gonville and Caius College. Sherrington was quite the student. Walter Holbrook Gaskell, one of Sherrington's tutors, informed him in November 1881 that he had earned the highest marks for his year in botany, human anatomy, and physiology; second in zoology; and highest overall. John Newport Langley was Sherrington's other tutor. The two were interested in how anatomical structure is expressed in physiological function.
Sherrington earned his Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons on August 4, 1884. In 1885, he obtained a First Class in the National Science Tripos with the mark of distinction. In the same year, Sherrington earned the degree of M.B., Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from Cambridge. In 1886, Sherrington added the title of L.R.C.P., Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.
A committee, including Langley, was made up to investigate. Both the dog and the monkey were chloroformed. The right hemisphere of the dog was delivered to Cambridge for examination. Sherrington performed a histological examination of the hemisphere, acting as a junior colleague to Langley. In 1884, Langley and Sherrington reported on their findings in a paper. The paper was the first for Sherrington.
A case of asiatic cholera had broken out in Spain in 1885. A Spanish physician claimed to have produced a vaccine to fight the outbreak. Under the auspices of Cambridge University, the Royal Society of London, and the Association for Research in Medicine, a group was put together to travel to Spain to investigate. C.S. Roy, J. Graham Brown, and Sherrington formed the group. Roy was Sherrington's friend and the newly elected professor of pathology at Cambridge. As the three traveled to Toledo, Sherrington was skeptical of the Spanish physician. Upon returning, the three presented a report to the Royal Society. The report discredited the Spaniard's claim.
Later that year Sherrington traveled to Rudolf Virchow in Berlin to inspect the cholera specimens he procured in Spain. Virchow later on sent Sherrington to Robert Koch for a six weeks' course in technique. Sherrington ended up staying with Koch for a year to do research in bacteriology. Under these two, Sherrington parted with a good foundation in physiology, morphology, histology, and pathology. During this period he may have also studied with Waldeyer and Zuntz.
In 1886, Sherrington went to Italy to again investigate a cholera outbreak. While in Italy, Sherrington spent much time in art galleries. It was in this country that Sherrington's love for rare books became an addiction.
Sherrington showed that muscle excitation was inversely proportional to the excitation of an opposing group of muscles. Speaking of the excitation-inhibition relationship, Sherrington said "desistence from action may be as truly active as is the taking of action." Sherrington continued his work on reciprocal innervation during his years at Liverpool. Come 1913, Sherrington was able to say that "the process of excitation and inhibition may be viewed as polar opposites [...] the one is able to neutralize the other." Sherrington's work on reciprocal innervation was a notable contribution to the knowledge of the spinal cord.
Sherrington's philosophy as a teacher can be seen in his response to the question of what was the real function of Oxford University in the world. Sherrington said:
"after some hundreds of years of experience we think that we have learned here in Oxford how
to teach what is known. But now with the undeniable upsurge of scientific research, we cannot
continue to rely on the mere fact that we have learned how to teach what is known. We must learn
to teach the best attitude to what is not yet known. This also may take centuries to acquire but we
cannot escape this new challenge, nor do we want to."
Sherrington's teachings at Oxford were interrupted by World War I. When the war started, it left his classes with only nine students. During the war, he laboured at a shell factory to support the war and to study fatigue in general, but specifically industrial fatigue. His weekday work hours were from 07:30 a.m to 08:30 p.m.; and 07:30 a.m. to 06:00 p.m. on the weekends.
It should also be noted that in March 1916, Sherrington fought for women to be able to be admitted to the medical school at Oxford.
Sherrington's mental faculties were crystal clear up to the time of his death, which was caused by a sudden heart failure and ended his life instantly. His bodily health, however, did suffer in old age. Rheumatoid arthritis was a major burden of his. Speaking of his condition, Sherrington said "old age isn't pleasant[,] one can't do things for oneself." The arthritis put Sherrington in a nursing home as late as 1951.
In personality, Sherrington was a joyous man. He will be remembered by close friends for his warmth of affection, his generosity of advice and time. Sherrington was a humble man. He enjoyed spending his time with students, where he acted as an equal, not as their superior.
At the time of his death Sherrington received honoris causa Doctors from twenty-two universities: Oxford, Paris, Manchester, Strasbourg, Louvain, Uppsala, Lyon, Budapest, Athens, London, Toronto, Harvard, Dublin, Edinburgh, Montreal, Liverpool, Brussels, Sheffield, Bern, Birmingham, Glasgow, and the University of Wales.