Charles Scott Sherrington

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington
Born (1857-11-27)27 November 1857
Islington, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom
Died 4 March 1952(1952-03-04) (aged 94)
Eastbourne, Sussex, England, United Kingdom
Citizenship British
Alma mater
Academic advisors
Doctoral students
Notable awards

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington OM GBE PRS FRCP FRCS[9][10] (27 November 1857 – 4 March 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 for their work on the functions of neurons.[11][12] 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).[13][14] Through his seminal 1906 publication, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System,[15] he had effectively laid to rest the theory that the nervous system, including the brain, can be understood as a single interlinking network. His alternative explanation of synaptic communication between neurons helped shape our understanding of the central nervous system.


Early years and education

Official biographies claim Charles Scott Sherrington was born in Islington, London, England, on 27 November 1857 and that he was the son of James Norton Sherrington, a country doctor, and his wife Anne Thurtell.[16] However James Norton Sherrington was an ironmonger and artist's colourman in Great Yarmouth, not a doctor, and died in Yarmouth in 1848, nearly 9 years before Charles was born.[17][18] In the 1861 census, Charles is recorded as Charles Scott (boarder, 4, born India) with Anne Sherrington (widow) as the head and Caleb Rose (visitor, married, surgeon).[19] He was brought up in this household with Caleb recorded as head in 1871,[20] although Ann and Caleb did not marry until after the death of his wife in 1880.[21] The relationship between Charles and his childhood family is unknown. During the 1860s the whole family moved to Anglesea Road, Ipswich, reputedly because London exacerbated Caleb Rose's tendency to asthma.[22]

Caleb Rose was noteworthy 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.[9][23] Through Rose's interest in the English artists of the Norwich School, Sherrington gained a love of art.[24] 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 him by Caleb Rose.

Sherrington entered Ipswich School in 1871.[9] 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. He 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".[9] 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.[23] Physiology was Sherrington's chosen major at Cambridge. There, he studied under the "father of British physiology," Sir Michael Foster.[25]

Sherrington played football for his grammar school, and for Ipswich Town Football Club, rugby St. Thomas's, was on the rowing team at Oxford.[23][26] During June 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.[27] The following year he entered Gonville and Caius College. Sherrington was quite the student. In June 1881 he took Part I in the Natural Sciences Tripos and was awarded a starred First in physiology; there were 9 candidates in all (8 men, 1 woman), of whom five gained Firsts; in June 1883 in Part II of the Tripos he also gained a First, alongside William Bateson.[28] 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.[23] John Newport Langley was Sherrington's other tutor. The two were interested in how anatomical structure is expressed in physiological function.[25]

Sherrington earned his Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons on 4 August 1884. In 1885, he obtained a First Class in the Natural 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.[9]

Seventh International Medical Congress

Charles Scott Sherrington

The conference was held in London in 1881. It was at this conference that Sherrington began his work in neurological research. At the conference controversy 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 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.[9]


In the Winter of 1884–1885, Sherrington left England for Strasbourg. There, he worked with Goltz. Goltz, like many others, positively influenced Sherrington. Sherrington later said of Goltz that: "[h]e taught one that in all things only the best is good enough."[9]

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.[23] Upon returning, the three presented a report to the Royal Society. The report discredited the Spaniard's claim.

It should be mentioned that Sherrington did not meet Santiago Ramón y Cajal on this trip. While Sherrington and his group remained in Toledo, Cajal was hundreds of miles away in Zaragoza.[23]

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.[25] 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.[23]


C.S. Roy and Charles Scott Sherrington (right), at the door of the Old Pathological Laboratory, Cambridge, 1893

In 1891, Sherrington was appointed as superintendent of the Brown Institute for Advanced Physiological and Pathological Research of the University of London, a center for human and animal physiological and pathological research.[23][24] Sherrington succeeded Sir Victor Alexander Haden Horsley.[29] There, Sherrington worked on segmental distribution of the spinal dorsal and ventral roots, he mapped the sensory dermatomes, and in 1892 discovered that muscle spindles initiated the stretch reflex. The institute allowed Sherrington to study many animals, both small and large. The Brown Institute had enough space to work with large primates such as apes.


Sherrington's first job of full-professorship came with his appointment as Holt Professor of Physiology at Liverpool in 1895, succeeding Francis Gotch.[23] With his appointment to the Holt Chair, Sherrington ended his active work in pathology.[9] Working on cats, dogs, monkeys, and apes that had been bereaved of their cerebral hemispheres, 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.[29] There he continued his work on reflexes and reciprocal innervation. His papers on the subject were synthesized into the Croonian lecture of 1897.

Sherrington 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." 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.[9]


As early as 1895, Sherrington had tried to gain employment at Oxford University. By 1913, the wait was over. Oxford offered Sherrington the Waynflete Chair of Physiology.[9] The electors to that chair unanimously recommended Sherrington without considering any other candidates.[23] Sherrington enjoyed the honor of teaching many bright students at Oxford, including Wilder Penfield, who he introduced to the study of the brain. Several of his students were Rhodes' scholars and three went on to be Nobel laureates. The three were Sir John Eccles, Ragnar Granit, and Howard Florey.[30] Sherrington also influenced American pioneer brain surgeon Harvey Williams Cushing.

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."[23]
Box of microscope slides carrying the plaque:"Sir Charles Sherrington's Histology Demonstration Slides: St Thomas's Hospital: 1886–1895; Liverpool University: 1895–1915; Oxford University: 1914–1935"

While at Oxford, Sherrington kept hundreds of microscope slides in a specially constructed box labelled "Sir Charles Sherrington's Histology Demonstration Slides". As well as histology demonstration slides, the box contains slides which may be related to original breakthroughs such as cortical localization in the brain; slides from contemporaries such as Angelo Ruffini and Gustav Fritsch; and slides from colleagues at Oxford such as John Burdon-Sanderson – the first Waynflete Chair of Physiology – and Derek Denny-Brown, who worked with Sherrington at Oxford (1924–1928)).[31]

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 8:30 p.m.; and 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on the weekends.[23]

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.[9] He then moved to his boyhood town of Ipswich, where he built a house.[25] There, he kept up a large correspondence with pupils and others from around the world. He also continued to work on his poetic, historical, and philosophical interests.[30] From 1944 until his own death he was President of the Ipswich Museum, on the committee of which he had previously served.[32]

Sherrington's mental faculties were crystal clear up to the time of his sudden death, which was caused by a sudden heart failure at age 94. His bodily health, however, did suffer in old age. Arthritis was a major burden of his.[25] Speaking of his condition, Sherrington said "old age isn't pleasant[,] one can't do things for oneself."[9] The arthritis put Sherrington in a nursing home in the year before his death, in 1951.[30]

Personal life

On 27 August 1891, Sherrington married Ethel Mary Wright (d.1933). Wright was the daughter of John Ely Wright of Preston Manor, Suffolk, England. Sherrington and Wright had one child, a son named Carr E.R. Sherrington who was born in 1897.[25] Wright was both loyal and lively. She was a great host. On weekends during the Oxford years the couple would frequently host a large group of friends and acquaintances at their house for an enjoyable afternoon.[9]

Noted publications

The Integrative Action of the Nervous System
Published in 1906,[15] this was a compendium of ten of Sherrington's Silliman lectures, delivered at Yale University in 1904.[33] In the publication, he discussed neuron theory, the "synapse" (a term he had coined in 1897) and communication between neurons, and a mechanism for the reflex-arc function.[11] The work effectively resolved the debate between neuron and reticular theory in mammals, thereby shaping our understanding of the central nervous system.[33] He expressed his theory that the nervous system acts as the coordinator of various parts of the body and that the reflexes are the simplest expressions of the interactive action of the nervous system, enabling the entire body to function toward one definite end at a time. He also pointed out that reflexes have to be goal-directive and purposive. Furthermore, he established the nature of postural reflexes and their dependence on the anti-gravity stretch reflex and traced the afferent stimulus to the proprioceptive end organs, which he had previously shown to be sensory in nature ("proprioceptive" was another term he had coined[11]). The work was dedicated to Ferrier.[25]
Man on His Nature
A reflection of Sherrington's philosophical thought. Sherrington had long studied the 16th century French physician Jean Fernel, and grew so familiar with him that he considered him a friend. In the years of 1937 and 1938, Sherrington delivered the Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh; these focused on Fernel and his times, and came to form the principal content of Man on His Nature. The book was released in 1940, and a revised edition came out in 1951. It explores philosophical thoughts about the mind, the human existence, and God, in connection with natural theology.[34] Chapters of the book align with the twelve zodiac signs.[35] In his ideas on the mind and cognition, Sherrington introduced the idea that neurons work as groups in a "million-fold democracy" to produce outcomes rather than with central control.[36]
The Assaying of Brabantius and other Verse
A collection of previously published war-time poems. This was Sherrington's first major poetic release. The Assaying was published in 1925. Sherrington's poetic side was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Sherrington was fond of Goethe the poet, but not Goethe the scientist. Speaking of Goethe's scientific writings, Sherrington said "to appraise them is not a congenial task."[9]
Mammalian Physiology: a Course of Practical Exercises: The textbook was released in 1919 at the first possible moment after Sherrington's coming to Oxford and the end of the War.[9]

Honours and awards

Stained glass window in the dining hall of Gonville and Caius College, in Cambridge (UK), commemorating Charles Scott Sherrington

Sherrington was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1893.[9]

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.[9]


Liddell-Sherrington reflex
Associated with Edward George Tandy Liddell and Charles Scott Sherrington, the Liddell-Sherrington reflex is the tonic contraction of muscle in response to its being stretched. When a muscle lengthens beyond a certain point, the myotatic reflex causes it to tighten and attempt to shorten. This is the tension you feel during stretching exercises.
Schiff-Sherrington reflex
Associated with Moritz Schiff and Charles Scott Sherrington, describes a grave sign in animals: rigid extension of the forelimbs after damage to the spine. It may be accompanied by paradoxical respiration – the intercostal muscles are paralysed and the chest is drawn passively in and out by the diaphragm.
Sherrington's First Law
Every posterior spinal nerve root supplies a particular area of the skin, with a certain overlap of adjacent dermatomes.
Sherrington's Second Law
The law of reciprocal innervation. When contraction of a muscle is stimulated, there is a simultaneous inhibition of its antagonist. It is essential for coordinated movement.
Vulpian-Heidenhain-Sherrington phenomenon
Associated with Rudolf Peter Heinrich Heidenhain, Edmé Félix Alfred Vulpian, and Charles Scott Sherrington. Describes the slow contraction of denervated skeletal muscle by stimulating autonomic cholinergic fibres innervating its blood vessels.


  1. Neurotree profile: Charles Scott Sherrington
  2. Eccles, J. C.; Gibson, W. C. (1979). Sherrington: His Life and Thought. Springer Science+Business Media. His library was housed mainly in one large room with open shelves reaching to the ceiling and a couple of turntable bookcases, one of them completely filled with editions of his favourite among all books, Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici
  3. Eccles, J. (1968). "Two Hitherto Unrecognized Publications by Sir Charles Sherrington, O.M., F.R.S". Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 23: 86–26. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1968.0012.
  4. Eccles, J. C. (1957). "Some Aspects of Sherrington's Contribution to Neurophysiology". Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 12 (2): 216–225. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1957.0012.
  5. Todman, Donald (2008). "Howard Florey and research on the cerebral circulation". Journal of Clinical Neuroscience. Elsevier. 15. His mentor was the neurophysiologist and Nobel Laureate, Sir Charles Sherrington who directed him in neuroscience research. Florey’s initial studies on the cerebral circulation represent an original contribution to medical knowledge and highlight his remarkable scientific method. The mentorship and close personal relationship with Sherrington was a crucial factor in Florey’s early research career.
  6. Tansey, E. M. (2008). "Working with C. S. Sherrington, 1918-24". Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 62 (1): 123–130. doi:10.1098/rsnr.2007.0037. PMC 2628577Freely accessible. PMID 18548907.
  7. Hill, A. V. (1975). "Jewels in My Acquaintance with C. S. Sherrington, F.R.S". Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 30 (1): 65–68. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1975.0006. PMID 11615581.
  8. Todman, D. (2008). "Wilder Penfield (1891–1976)". Journal of Neurology. 255 (7): 1104–1105. doi:10.1007/s00415-008-0915-6. PMID 18500490.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Liddell, E. G. T. (1952). "Charles Scott Sherrington. 1857-1952". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 8 (21): 241–226. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1952.0016. JSTOR 768811.
  10. Sherrington, C. E. (1975). "Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952)". Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. 30 (1): 45–63. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1975.0005. PMID 11615580.
  11. 1 2 3 Pearce, J. M. (2004). "Sir Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952) and the synapse". Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry. 75 (4): 544. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2003.017921 (inactive 2015-01-09). PMC 1739021Freely accessible. PMID 15026492.
  12. Penfield, W. (1962). "Sir Charles Sherrington, O.M., F.R.S. (1857-1952): An Appreciation". Notes and Records of the Royal Society. 17 (2): 163–168. doi:10.1098/rsnr.1962.0015.
  13. ""Sir Charles Sherrington – Nobel Lecture: Inhibition as a Coordinative Factor".". Retrieved 31 July 2012.
  14. "Sir Charles Scott Sherrington". Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 31 July 2012.
  15. 1 2 Sherrington, Charles Scott (1906). The integrative action of the nervous system (1st ed.). Oxford University Press: H. Milford. pp. xvi, 411 p., [19] leaves of plates.
  16. "Sir Charles Sherrington - Biographical". Nobel Prize official Website. Retrieved Nov 26, 2016.
  17. GRO index: 1848 Dec, Yarmouth 13, 258
  18. Will of James Norton Sherrington, proved at London 5 March 1849, National Archives Catalogue Reference:Prob 11/2090, image 171
  19. "1861 England, Wales & Scotland Census Transcription". Findmypast. Retrieved Nov 26, 2016. (subscription required (help)).
  20. "1871 England, Wales & Scotland Census Transcription". Findmypast. Retrieved Nov 26, 2016. (subscription required (help)).
  21. GRO marriages index: 1880 Dec, Ipswich 4a, 1377
  22. Anon (1895). "Obituary: Mr. Caleb Rose". BMJ. 2 (1820): 1266–1262. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.1820.1266-a.
  23. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Eccles, J.; Gibson, W. (1979). Sherrington: His Life and Thought. Berlin; New York: Springer International. pp. 1–6, 15, 24–25. ISBN 0-387-09063-0.
  24. 1 2 Karl Grandin, ed. (1932). "Sir Charles Sherrington Biography". Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  25. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Kusurkar, R. A. (2004). "Sir Charles Sherrington (1857 - 1952)". Journal of postgraduate medicine. 50 (3): 238–239. PMID 15377819.
  26. Granit, R. (1967). Charles Scott Sherrington: An Appraisal. Garden City, NY: Double Day & Company. p. 3. OCLC 573353.
  27. "Sherrington, Charles Scott (SHRN879CS)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  28. University of Cambridge Calendar, 1894-95, p. 330
  29. 1 2 "Sir Charles Scott Sherrington". Who Named It?. 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  30. 1 2 3 Gibson, W.C. (2001). "Chapter 1: Sir Charles Sherrington, O.M., P.R.S. (1857–1952)" (PDF). Twentieth Century Neurology: The British Contribution. London: Imperial College Press. pp. 4–6. ISBN 1-86094-245-8. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
  31. Molnar, Zoltan; Brown, Richard (June 2010). "Insights into the life and work of Sir Charles Sherrington". Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 11: 429–436. doi:10.1038/nrn2835. Retrieved 22 February 2013.
  32. Ipswich Museum Records.
  33. 1 2 Burke, RE (April 2007). "Sir Charles Sherrington's the integrative action of the nervous system: a centenary appreciation". Brain. 130 (Pt 4): 887–94. doi:10.1093/brain/awm022. PMID 17438014.
  34. Charles Scott Sherrington R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh
  35. Man on his Nature, Sherrington
  36. Quiroga, Rodrigo Quian (2013). "Gnostic cells in the 21st century". Acta Neurobiol. Exp. 73: 1–9.
  37. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32563. p. 10716. 31 December 1921.
  38. Sherrington's Presidential Address to the British Association Meeting, held at Hull in 1922

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