Sir Charles Scott Sherrington’s parentage and early childhood is vague. Official biographies record his birth as 27 November 1857 in Islington, London, to Dr James Sherrington and his wife Anne Thurtell; however other records suggest James Sherrington was an ironmonger who had died 9 years before Charles was born in Yarmouth.
Censuses from the time indicate that Sherrington was indeed born in 1857 but in the household of the widow Anne Sherrington and the surgeon Caleb Rose, who married after the death of Caleb’s wife in 1880.
During the 1860’s the family moved to Ipswich, where Sherrington was educated at Ipswich School. He was taught by the famous poet Thomas Ashe, who inspired in him a love of classics and a desire to travel. Since Rose was a noteworthy classical scholar and archaeologist, intellectuals frequently visited their family home, creating an environment that installed in Sherrington an academic sense of wonder.
Influenced by Rose, Sherrington began his medical studies at St Thomas’ Hospital in 1876. He then entered Cambridge as a non-collegiate student in 1879 but by the following year he had entered Gonville and Caius College. He studied at Cambridge under Sir Michael Foster, the so-called ‘father of British physiology’.
Sherrington earned his Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1884, and in the following year obtained a First Class in the Natural Sciences Tripos with the mark of distinction and the degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from Cambridge.
During his time at Cambridge, Sherrington published his first paper, with John Newport Langley, regarding a controversy that had arisen at the Seventh International Medical Congress. At the conference Friedrich Goltz argued that the localized function in the cortex did not exist, based on his observation of dogs, whereas David Ferrier disagreed, based on his observation of a monkey who had suffered from hemiplegia. This work introduced Sherrington to Goltz, whom he later worked with at Strasbourg, and to the neurological work to which he devoted the rest of his life.
After his time at Cambridge, Sherrington traveled to Spain and Italy to study an outbreak of cholera. He examined the material he obtained in Berlin under Rudolf Virchow, who later sent him to Robert Koch for a course in technique, with whom he ended up staying for a year to conduct further research.
In 1891, Sherrington was appointed as superintendent of the Brown Institute for Advanced Physiological and Pathological Research of the University of London, and in 1885 was appointed as Holt Professor of Physiology at Liverpool.
Through his 1906 publication, “The Integrative Action of the Nervous System”, Sherrington 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.
In 1913, he came here to the Department in Oxford as the Waynflete Professor of Physiology; Charles was recommended for the chair unanimously without any other candidates being considered. He said of Oxford that its real function in the world “is to teach…what is not yet known”.
While at Oxford, Sherrington kept hundreds of microscope slides in a specially constructed box labelled “Sir Charles Sherrington’s Histology Demonstration Slides”, which has been preserved and is kept in the department today.
Sherrington received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932 with Edgar Adrian 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; instead Sherrington and Adrian showed that reflexes require integrated activation and demonstrated reciprocal innervation of muscles, a principle now known as Sherrington’s Law.
Sherrington married Ethel Mary Wright in 1891, with whom he had one child, Charles E.R. Sherrington, in 1897. He retired from Oxford in 1936, upon which he moved back to Ipswich where he built a house. He died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 94 on 4 March 1952.