British neurophysiologist, whose work on the mechanisms of integration in the nervous system earned him the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. He was knighted in 1922.
Born in London, Sherrington studied physiology at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, before going on to study medicine at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He spent some time in Europe, including a spell in Robert Koch's laboratory in Berlin, before his appointment in 1887 as lecturer in systematic physiology at St Thomas's. He served (1891–95) as physician-superintendent of the Brown Institution, a London veterinary hospital. He then joined Liverpool University as professor of physiology (1895–1912) and subsequently held a similar post at Oxford University until his retirement in 1935.
Sherrington's early work was in neuroanatomy, mapping the pathways of nerves and their connections. In the late 1890s he established the phenomenon of reciprocal innervation, which showed how, when the flexor muscle of a joint is stimulated to contract, the motor nerves supplying the extensor muscle are simultaneously inhibited – and vice versa. In 1897 he introduced the term ‘synapse’ for the point of contact between two nerve cells. Starting from his early studies of simple spinal reflex actions, such as the knee jerk, Sherrington proceeded to establish how these are integrated with control centres in the spinal cord and brain and how simple reflexes are compounded to produce more complex reflexes, such as the scratch reflex in dogs. His book The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (1906) was an important text in neurophysiology. Sherrington's work was interrupted by World War I, during which he worked for a time in a munitions factory to gain first-hand experience of the effects of industrial fatigue. In 1924 he published his findings on the stretch reflex in muscle. Stretching of muscles, he found, stimulates stretch receptors in the muscle to trigger motor nerves to the muscle, causing it to contract, thus providing a built-in mechanism for maintaining posture.