Journal of Postgraduate Medicine
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 50  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 238-239  

Sir Charles Sherrington (1857 - 1952)

Rashmi A Kusurkar 
 Department of Physiology, G. S. Medical College and K.E.M Hospital, Parel, Mumbai - 400 012, India

Correspondence Address:
Rashmi A Kusurkar
Department of Physiology, G. S. Medical College and K.E.M Hospital, Parel, Mumbai - 400 012

How to cite this article:
Kusurkar RA. Sir Charles Sherrington (1857 - 1952).J Postgrad Med 2004;50:238-239

How to cite this URL:
Kusurkar RA. Sir Charles Sherrington (1857 - 1952). J Postgrad Med [serial online] 2004 [cited 2023 Jun 1 ];50:238-239
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Full Text

Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern…a shifting harmony of sub patterns.'[1]

These were the words used by Sir Charles Sherrington, an imminent neurophysiologist cum poet, to describe the awake brain in his lecture, "Brain and its works" at the University of Edinburgh.

Sir Charles Sherrington was born on 27 November 1857 in Islington, London. He was the son of Anne Brookes and James Norton Sherrington, of Caister, Great Yarmouth, a country physician who died when he was quite young.[2]

His mother married Caleb Rose Jr., of Ipswich, a physician of wide cultural interests and a noted archaeologist. The Rose home, a gathering place for artists and scholars, helped to shape Sherrington's broad interest in science, philosophy, history, and poetry. One of his schoolmasters, Thomas Ashe, was a poet of considerable distinction.[2]

 Academic Background and Work

After attending the Ipswich Grammar School from 1870 to 1875, Sherrington, encouraged by his stepfather, began medical training at St. Thomas's Hospital in London. He passed the primary examination of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1878, and a year later the primary examination for the Fellowship of that College.[2]

In 1879 he went to Cambridge as a non-collegiate student studying physiology under the "father of British physiology", Sir Michael Foster (1836-1907), and in 1880 entered Gonville and Caius College there. During the years 1881-1885 he worked chiefly under two of Foster's pupils who were already becoming world famous - John Newport Langley (1852-1925) and Walter Gaskell (1847-1914). Langley and Gaskell imparted to him their dominant interest in how anatomical structure reflects, or is expressed in, physiological function.[2]

In 1881 he attended a medical congress in London at which Sir Michael Foster discussed the work of Sir Charles Bell and others on the experimental study of the functions of nerves that was then being done in Europe. At this congress controversy arose about the effects of excisions of parts of the cortex of the brains of dogs and monkeys done by David Ferrier (1843-1928) and Friedrich Leopold Goltz (1834-1902) of Strasbourg.[2] In true British fashion a committee was set up under J.N. Langley, the Cambridge physiologist. His student, Sherrington reported on precise anatomical structures involved, thus launching his career in the realm of scientific publications, a career in which he produced 320 papers.[3]

Ferrier was Sherrington's hero to whom he dedicated his "The Integrative Action of the Nervous System", 20 years later. Thus began Sherrington's interest in cerebral localisation of function.[3]

He obtained his M.R.C.S. in 1884 and in 1885 a First Class in the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge with distinction. In 1885 he also took his M.B. degree at Cambridge and in 1886 became a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians. After graduation he worked with Langley, studying the anatomical changes in the cord and brainstem of decorticate dogs.[2]

A growing interest in pathology took Sherrington to Rudolf Virchow in Berlin. He examined cholera material under the supervision of Virchow, who later sent Sherrington to Robert Koch (1843-1910) for a six weeks' course in technique. Sherrington stayed with Koch to do research in bacteriology for a year. Thus he gained a superb grounding in physiology, morphology, histology, and pathology.[2]

His histological work developed in concert with his physiological work and he showed in 1894 that the muscle spindles described by his friend Ruffini were the sensory informants of the neuromuscular system. The Purkinje cells of the cerebellum were demonstrated by the Golgi stain.[3]

As foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, he invited the rising star of histology, Ramon Cajal of Madrid to give the Croonian lecture in London in 1894. There the boutouns terminaux, the axonal bodies on the neurons next in the circuit were superbly shown through silver strains.[3]

Sir Michael Foster, asked Sherrington to take on Part III of "The Textbook of Physiology" on the nervous system. Sherrington wrote of his enormous burden," I felt the need to call the junction between nerve cell and nerve cell…I suggested using syndesm". He consulted his Trinity friend Verrall, who suggested the term 'synapse', from the Greek clasp.[3] Sherrington also contributed the terms exterioceptor, proprioceptor and visceroceptor.[2]

Sherrington's major contributions were brought together at his lectures at Yale University in 1904, from which his remarkable volume' The Integrative Action of the Nervous System' was published. This volume became the touchstone of neurologists and psychologists for many years. The British clinician F.M.R.Walsh, said of the volume," In Physiology it holds a position similar to that of Newton's Principia in physics. Here is the imprint of a scientific genius". Russell Brain was later to ask," Is it inappropriate to compare The Integrative Action to De Motu Cordis of Harvey?"[3]

Briefly, his theory was 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 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 already shown to be sensory in nature.[2]

Between 1920-1925, he was President of the prestigious Physiological Society. Other honours included the Knight Grand Cross of the British Empire (1922) and the Order of Merit (1924).[2] In the 1920s his work concentrated on synaptic mechanisms, muscle reflexes and muscle relaxation.

Although best known for his work on spinal reflexes, he made equally great strides in the study of perception, reaction and behaviour.[2]

In 1930, the Clarendon Press invited him to write a book on his laboratory's recent work. This book, titled "The Reflex Activity of the Spinal Cord", was published in 1932. No sooner had this book appeared than Sherrington was awarded his Nobel Prize, an honour shared with his dear friend Edgar Adrian of Cambridge. His Nobel lecture was on "Inhibition as a coordinative factor".[3]

Three years later at the age of 78, he retired from his professorship and built a delightful house in his boyhood town of Ipswich.[3]

 The Man

Sherrington married Ether Wright of Suffolk, England, on August 27, 1891; their only child, Carr E. R. Sherrington, was born in 1897.

In physique Sherrington was a well-built, but not very tall man with a strong constitution, which enabled him to carry out prolonged researches. During the First World War, as Chairman of the Industrial Fatigue Board, he worked for a time in a shell factory at Birmingham, and the daily shift of 13 hours, with a Sunday shift of 9 hours, did not, at the age of 57, tire him. From his early years he was short-sighted, but he often worked without spectacles.[1]

Besides his scientific work Sherrington was a man of wide interests and accomplishments: biographer, medical historian, poet, and book collector and sportsman. As a boy and a young man Sherrington was a notable athlete both at Queen Elizabeth's School, Ipswich, where he went in 1871, and later at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, for which College he rowed and played rugby football; he was also a pioneer of winter sports at Grindelwald, Switzerland.[1]

Sherrington always had a love for classics and poetry and in 1925 published a volume of collected verse "The Assaying of Brabantius and other Verse".[1]

The philosopher in him ultimately found expression in his great book, Man on his Nature, which was the published title of the Gifford Lectures for 1937-1938, which Sherrington gave. As is well known, this book, published in 1940, centres on the life and views of the 16th century French physician Jean Fernel and on Sherrington's own views. In 1946 Sherrington published another volume entitled The Endeavour of Jean Fernel.[1]

W.C. Gibson writes of him that in spite of being in a nursing home because of his arthritis at the age of 94, he was as jovial as ever.

He passed away at the age of 95, in 1952, but his words will always remain with us,

"Do not, O my brothers, forget research. Science calls us all to it - and the call is from humanity as well."[3]

 Associated Eponyms

Liddell-Sherrington reflex

Tonic contraction of the muscles in response to their being stretched.

Schiff-Sherrington reflex

A grave sign in animals: rigid extension of the forelimbs after damage to the spine.

Sherrington's law I

Every posterior spinal nerve root supplies a particular area of the skin.

Sherrington's law II

The law of reciprocal innervation.

Vulpian-Heidenhain-Sherrington phenomenon

Slow contraction of denervated skeletal muscle by stimulating the autonomic cholinergic fibres innervating its blood vessels.


1The Nobel Foundation (Homepage on the Internet). From Nobel lectures, Physiology or Medicine1922.1941, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1965.c 2004. (updated 2003 Oct 14, cited 2003 Oct 21). Available from:
2Who named it? (Home page on the Internet).c 1994-2001, Ole Daniel Enerson (cited 2003 Oct 27). Available from: < - 30k ->
3W.C.Gibson. Sir Charles Sherrington, O.M., P.R.S (1857-1952). In: Twentieth Century Neurology, The British Contribution. F Clifford Rose editor. Imperial College Press; Nov 2001.p.1-7.Available from: < p210/p210_chap1.pdf>7

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