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Sherrington, Sir Charles

Category: Scientist

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, OM, GBE, PRS (1857 –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.

Charles [according to Wikipedia] was one of 3 illegitimate sons born to Anne Brookes Sherrington and Caleb Rose, an eminent Ipswich surgeon.   Caleb and Anne were not actually married until the last quarter of 1880, following the death of Caleb's first wife, Isabella, in Edinburgh, so he spent most of his childhood as a ‘bastard’ as he would have been called in those days.  I use this word deliberately to show the strength of the prejudice shown towards entirely innocent children at this time.

The child was persecuted for the parents’ action.  The persecution was inflicted by other children who’d heard their parents muttering between themselves, behind twitching curtains. It was hurled across streets at little ones who did not even know the word, occasionally did not even know they had been born ‘out of wedlock’.  Many children had nervous complaints and what we would now call  asthma as a consequence of the bullying and name calling, and asthma can be exacerbated and even started by stress and terror. 
It was not at all unusual for families to have to move to escape their history and start afresh in a prejudice free place.

and indeed this is what appears to have happened.

  During the 1860s the whole family moved to Anglesea Road, Ipswich, reputedly because London exacerbated Caleb Rose's tendency to asthma, but of course history has a tendency to be left behind in moves of this sort.  

Harvey Williams Cushing and Charles Scott Sherrington 1938

Caleb Rose proved a great inspiration to Sherrington.  It was through Rose's interest in the English artists of the Norwich School, that Sherrington gained a love of art. Intellectuals frequented the house regularly and the environment 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.  Thomas Ashe, a poet, worked at the Sherrington’s school and also served as an inspiration to Sherrington, instilling in him a love of classics and a desire to travel.

Sherrington elected to enroll at St Thomas' Hospital in September 1876 as a "perpetual pupil". 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.

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

He helped with cholera outbreaks, fought for women to be able to be admitted to the medical school at Oxford, taught and lectured.  And during the war, he laboured at a shell factory to support the war. His weekday work hours were from 07:30 a.m to 08:30 p.m.; and 07:30 a.m. to 06:00 p.m. on the weekends.  He was a tireless worker.

In 1891, Sherrington was appointed as superintendent of the Brown Institute for Advanced Physiological and Pathological Research of the University of London, where he  worked on segmental distribution of the spinal dorsal and ventral roots, mapping the sensory dermatomes, and in 1892 discovered that muscle spindles initiated the stretch reflex. 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.

In 1913, Oxford offered Sherrington the Waynflete Chair of Physiology where he did a lot of teaching.  He retired from Oxford in 1936. He then moved to Ipswich, where he built a house. 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. From 1944 until his own death he was President of the Ipswich Museum, on the committee of which he had previously served.

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.

So where did his inspiration come from?  Careful observation, an open mind, reasoning, deduction and hard work.  He does not come across as particularly ‘spiritual’, on the other hand he clearly separates mind from brain.  And he did have numerous moments of real wisdom, which can only be put down to ‘help’.  Furthermore, he shows a sensitivity and artistic sensibility which is most unusual in a scientist.

 

from The Age of Enlightenment

The predominant notes of his character as a man were his humility and friendliness and the generosity with which he gave to others his advice and valuable time. An interesting  feature of him is that he published, in 1925, a book of verse entitled The Assaying of Brabantius and other Verse, which caused one reviewer to hope that «Miss Sherrington» would  publish more verse. He was also sensitive to the music of prose, and this and the poet in him, but also the biologist and philosopher, were evident in his Rede Lecture at Cambridge in 1933 on The Brain and its Mechanism, in which he denied our scientific right to join mental with physiological experience.

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 round the  life and views of the 16th century French physician Jean Fernel and round Sherrington's own views. In 1946 Sherrington published another volume entitled The Endeavour of Jean Fernel.

His mind was sound to the end but his bodily health, however, was not. Sherrington suffered from Rheumatoid arthritis – a truly major burden and one that can produce appalling pain, thus this may have opened the door occasionally. The arthritis eventually put Sherrington in a nursing home in the year before his death, in 1951.

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