Nobel Laureate Sir Charles Scott Sherrington

Charles Sherrington

Charles Sherrington

On November 27, 1857, English neurophysiologist and Nobel Laureate Sir Charles Scott Sherrington was born. Sherrington received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Edgar Adrian in 1932 for their work on the functions of neurons. Prior to the work of Sherrington and Adrian, it was widely accepted that reflexes occurred as isolated activity within a reflex arc. Sherrington received the prize for showing that reflexes require integrated activation and demonstrated reciprocal innervation of muscles (Sherrington’s law).

Charles Scott Sherrington was born in Islington, London, England, on 27 November 1857. It is believed that Sherrington’s academic sense of wonder was shaped by the intellectuals that frequented his home regularly. He entered Ipswich School in 1871 and was highly inspired by his teacher Thomas Ashe, a famous English poet. Through Ashe, Sherrington developed a love of classics and a desire to travel.

Sherrington began to study with the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Sherrington elected to enroll at St Thomas’ Hospital in September 1876 as a “perpetual pupil”, where his studies 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. In October 1879, Sherrington entered Cambridge as a non-collegiate student. The following year he entered Gonville and Caius College. 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. He was second in zoology, and highest overall.

Charles Scott Sherrington earned his Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons on 4 August 1884 and one year later he obtained a First Class in the Natural Science Tripos with the mark of distinction and 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.

In 1881, the Seventh International Medical Congress was held in London and there, a controvery broke out. Friedrich Goltz of Strasbourg argued that localized function in the cortex did not exist. Goltz came to this conclusion after observing dogs who had parts of their brains removed. David Ferrier, who became a hero of Sherrington’s, disagreed. Ferrier maintained that there was localization of function in the brain. Ferrier’s strongest evidence was a monkey who suffered from hemiplegia, paralysis affecting one side of the body only, after a cerebral lesion.

A committe was created to investigate the matter on a dog and monkey. 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.

He began to work with Goltz in Strasbourg and as he later recalls, Sherrington was positively influenced by Goltz. Sherrington traveled to Rudolf Virchow in Berlin to work on cholera. 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.

Sherrington’s first job of full-professorship came with his appointment as Holt Professor of Physiology at Liverpool in 1895. He found that reflexes must be considered integrated activities of the total organism, not just the result of activities of the so-called reflex-arcs, a concept then generally accepted. Sherrington continued his work on reflexes and reciprocal innervation. His papers on the subject were synthesized into the Croonian lecture of 1897. Further he showed that muscle excitation was inversely proportional to the inhibition 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.”

Oxford offered Sherrington the Waynflete Chair of Physiology in 1813. Sherrington’s teachings at Oxford were interrupted by World War I. During the war, he laboured at a shell factory to support the war and to study fatigue in general, but specifically industrial fatigue. In March 1916, Sherrington fought for women to be admitted to the medical school at Oxford. Charles Sherrington retired from Oxford in the year of 1936.

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