ir Charles Scott Sherrington OM GBE PRS (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.
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).
Through his seminal 1906 publication, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, 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.
Charles Scott Sherrington was born in Islington, London, England, on 27 November 1857. Although official biographies claimed that he was the son of James Norton Sherrington, a country doctor, and his wife Anne Brookes, née Thurtell, Charles and his brothers, William and George, were in fact almost certainly the illegitimate sons of Anne Brookes Sherrington and Caleb Rose, an eminent Ipswich surgeon.
Caleb’s father, Caleb Burrell Rose, was indeed a country doctor (in Swaffham, Norfolk) and was also a well-known amateur geologist who published the first geological study of Norfolk.
James Norton Sherrington, Anne Thurtell’s first husband, 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. The births of the three Sherrington boys do not appear to have been officially registered. They were all baptised on 17 July 1863 in the parish church of St James, Clerkenwell.
No father’s name is supplied, and their mother’s address is given as 14 College Terrace, Islington. In the 1861 census the occupants of this house were listed as Anne Sherrington (widow), Charles Scott (boarder, 4, born India), William Stainton (boarder, 2, born Liverpool), Caleb Rose (visitor, married, surgeon) and his 11-year-old son Edward Rose, who was also described as a boarder.
During the 1860s the whole family moved to Anglesea Road, Ipswich, reputedly because London exacerbated Caleb Rose’s tendency to asthma, and appeared in the census there in 1871, but Caleb and Anne were not actually married until the last quarter of 1880, following the death of Caleb’s first wife, Isabella, in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 1 October 1880.
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.
Through 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 him by Caleb Rose.
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. 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”.
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 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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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.