Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington was born in Islington, London, England on November 27, 1857.  Sherrington was the illegitimate son of Anne Brooks Sherrington and Caleb Rose, an imminent Ipswich surgeon.  Caleb Rose and Anne Sherrington were married only in 1880 after the  death of his wife.  Rose was a patron of the arts and the house that Sherrington grew up in had many books and paintings.  In 1871 Sherrington entered Ipswich school, where he played soccer and was an outstanding athelete.  He began his medical training at the urging of his step-father at St. Thomas Hospital in 1876 and passed the preliminary medical examination of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1878.  A year later he passed the examination for a fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons.  In 1879 he went to Cambridge as a non-collegiate student and began studying physiology under Sir Michael Foster.  The following year he entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Sherrington was a good student and earned the highest marks in his class in botany, human anatomy and physiology.  He earned membership in the Royal College of Surgeons in 1884 and earned a first class in the Natural Science Tripos and earned a M.B. Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1885.  In 1886 he earned the title of Licentiate of the Royal Collage of Physicians.  During the winter of 1884-5 he worked for German physiologist Friedrich Goltz in Strasbourg, Germany.  In 1885 he served as part of a committee that went to Toledo, Spain to investigate a potential vaccine for cholera.  The vaccine turned out to be ineffective.  Later that year he went to Berlin to work for Rudolf Virchow, studying the cholera specimens gathered in Spain.  Virchow sent Sherrington to Robert Koch for a class on technique.  Sherrington stayed with Koch for a year and studied bacteriology.  In 1886 Sherrington went to Italy to investigate a cholera epidemic.

In 1887 Sherrington was elected as a fellow at Caius College and appointed lecturer in systematic physiology at St. Thomas Hospital Medical School.  In 1891 Sherrington was appointed superintendent of the Brown Institute for Physiological and Pathological Research at the University of London.  Sherrington's research topics included leukocytes, the specific gravity of blood, the presence of bacteria in secretions and changes in blood in local inflammation. He was also able to cure his nephew from diphtheria by injecting him with anti-toxin.  This is the first recorded case of the successful use of anti-toxin in diphtheria treatment in England.  He also researched spinal reflexes, which laid the basis of the work for which he is most remembered.  In 1895 he was appointed as the Holt Professor in physiology at Liverpool University.  He continued his research into spinal cord innervation and the innervation of opposing muscles.

In 1906 Sherrington published The Integrative Action of The Nervous System, a book so important in neurophysiology that its influence has been compared to Newton's Principia's importance to physics.  In the book he introduced the term synapse to describe the space between nerve cells.  Nerve cells function to carry action potentials, a wave of electrochemical energy, that move down nerve cells.  Synapses, the spaces in between nerve cells, carry the impulse from one cell to the next by means of a chemical neurotransmitter.  When the action potential reaches the end of one nerve cell (called dendrites) that cell releases a neurotransmitter that signals the next cell to fire an action potential.  The neurotransmitter diffuses across the synapse and is detected by receptors on the second nerve cell.  In response to the neurotransmitter being detected by the receptor the second nerve cell fires, sending an action potential down the nerve.  For his work in elucidating the structure and function of the nervous system Sherrington shared part of the 1932 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine.

In 1913 he was offered the Waynflete chair in physiology, where he remained until his retirement 1936.  During World War I, when his classes were reduced he worked at a shell factory and studied fatigue, particularly industrial fatigue.  Other honors won by Sherrington include election to the Royal Society in 1893 and he served as its president in the early 1920s.  He won the Royal Medal from the Royal Society in 1905, the Knight of the Grand Cross in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1922 and Order of Merit in 1924.

He spent his retirement in a house he built in his boyhood home, Ipswitch, keeping an active correspondence with many of his former students. He died on March 4, 1952


O'Connor, W.J.; British Physiologists 1885-1914: A Biographical Dictionary; Manchester University Press ND; 1991

Pearce, J.M.S.; "Sir Charles Scott Sherrington and the Synapse"; Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry(2004)75:544

Charles Scott Sherrington Wikipedia Entry

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington Nobel Biography

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