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Charles Scott Sherrington

Sometime Professor of Physiology, Oxford
1857 to 1952

Born in London on 27 November 1857, Charles Scott Sherrington attended Queen Elizabeth’s School in Ipswich and later Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. In 1876, he began studying medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital, passing his primary examinations of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1878. In 1880, he entered Gonville and Caius to study physiology under Sir Michael Foster, completing his B.A. in 1883. That year he was appointed demonstrator of anatomy at Cambridge and also worked at St Thomas’s Hospital, where he would qualify in medicine the following year. He visited Spain in 1885 and Venice in 1886 to study outbreaks of cholera for the Committee of the Association for Research in Medicine. After a year of research in bacteriology, Sherrington was elected a fellow of Gonville and Caius and appointed lecturer in systematic physiology at Cambridge. He held a series of prestigious teaching positions: professor and superintendent of the Brown Institute for Advanced Physiological and Pathological Research (1891–95); professor of physiology at the University of Liverpool (1895–1913); and Waynfleet Professor of Physiology at Oxford (1913–35).

Sherrington’s research focused on all aspects of mammalian anatomy, but primarily on neurological function. He published widely on the subject, including his 1906 work, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, which were the Silliman lectures he had delivered at Yale University in 1905. In this work, he identified three primary types of sense organs. His impact on the field of neurological study was profound. He coined the terms ‘neuron’ and ‘synapse’, and established the theory of ‘reciprocal innervation’ that states when a set of muscles is stimulated the opposing muscles are inhibited. This became known as ‘Sherrington’s Law’. Additionally, he did much to advance understanding of the role and function of the spinal chord. He received honorary doctorates from over twenty universities in ten different countries. In addition, he was elected to the Royal Society of London (1893), received the Royal Medal (1905) and Copley Medal (1927), and conferred with the honours of the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (1922) and the Order of Merit (1924). In 1932, he received the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology.

In his Gifford series of 1937–38, Sherrington delivered lectures based on the work of the sixteenth-century physician Jean Fernel. In this body of lectures, published as Man on His Nature, Sherrington reflects upon both the work of Fernel and his own rich experience to express his philosophical perspective on human existence. Sherrington published a second work on Fernal entitled The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (1946).

Sherrington died in Eastbourne on 4 March 1952, of heart failure.

  • R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh