Charles Sherrington(27 November 1857 – 4 March 1952) was an English physiologist whose 50 years of experimentation laid the foundations for an understanding of integrated nervous function in higher animals and brought him (with Edgar Adrian) the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1932.
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.
Working with cats, dogs, monkeys, and apes that had been deprived of their cerebral hemispheres, Sherrington found that reflexes must be regarded as integrated activities of the total organism, not as the result of the activities of isolated “reflex arcs,” a notion that was currently accepted. The first major piece of evidence supporting “total integration” was his demonstration (1895–98) of the “reciprocal innervation” of muscles, also known as Sherrington’s law: when one set of muscles is stimulated, muscles opposing the action of the first are simultaneously inhibited.
His investigations of nearly every aspect of mammalian nervous function have directly influenced the development of brain surgery and the treatment of such nervous disorders as paralysis and atrophy. Sherrington also coined the terms neuron and synapse to denote the nerve cell and the point at which the nervous impulse is transmitted from one nerve cell to another, respectively.
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.
After some years of frail health, during which, however, he remained mentally very alert, he died suddenly of heart failure at Eastbourne in 1952.