Charles Scott Sherrington Biography (1857-1952)


Charles Scott Sherrington was born in London, England, on November 27, 1857.His father, who died while Sherrington was still young, was a physician, as was his step-father, who encouraged him to pursue a medical career. Sherrington studied at the Royal College of Surgeons, St. Thomas' Hospital in London, and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, before earning his medical degree from Cambridge in 1885. In the first years after receiving his degree, Sherrington traveled a number of times to Europe, investigating the effects of cholera epidemics and studying with Rudolph Virchow, Heinrich Hermann, and RobertKoch in Germany. While in Spain, he also became familiar with the work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal. As a result of these experiences, Sherrington became more interested in the study of pathology, physiology, and neurophysiology. Upon his return from Europe, Sherrington assumed the post of Professor ofPhysiology at the University of London and then, in 1895, at the University of Liverpool. He remained at Liverpool until 1913, when he accepted an appointment at Oxford.

Sherrington's accomplishments can be divided into three main areas: reflex action, decerebrate rigidity (changes that occur when part of the central nervous system is cut), and cortical localization (determining the function of various parts of the brain). Many of Sherrington's most important findings are summarized in his 1906 text, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. That text is regarded as perhaps the most important single work establishing the basis of modern neurophysiology.

Sherrington's study of reflex action made clear that reflexes did not involvemerely a few muscles, but that the brain integrated reactions to stimuli. For example, a dog's reaction to an itch involves 36 muscles performing two functions--scratching and maintaining balance.

Sherrington also made an important distinction among exteroceptive sensory nerves that detect stimuli from outside the body (such as smells, sounds, and light), interoceptive nerves that detect stimuli taken in to thebody (foods), and proprioceptive nerves that detect states within thebody such as the position of a muscle. The proprioceptive neurons carry outimportant functions such as maintaining balance and performing coordinated actions such as running. Sherrington was also the first to use the term neuronfor the nerve cell and synapse for the junction between nerve cells.

Sherrington studied the effects on animals from which one or another part ofthe central nervous system had been removed, using his data to make detailedcortical maps of the brain. By cutting various parts of the cerebral cortex,he was able to determine with a high degree of accuracy where various motor functions are located in the brain. In 1919, he published a classic book, Mammalian Physiology: A Course of Practical Exercises. For his work in neurophysiology, Sherrington was knighted in 1922 and awarded a share of the 1932 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Sherrington died of heart failure in Eastbourne on March 4, 1952, at the age of 95.

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