COMPANION

Sir Charles Sherrington

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington (1857–1952), English neurophysiologist and supporter of the Alexander Technique.

Life

Sherrington became a doctor in 1886 and immediately started to specialize in physiology. He worked at the universities of London (1891–95), Liverpool (1895–1912) and Oxford (1913–35). He was knighted in 1922 and shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1932.

Work

Sherrington introduced fundamental terms and concepts in neuroscience. The importance of proprioception was demonstrated in 1894 with his findings that the nerve supply to muscles contains 25–50% sensory fibres, as well as motor fibres concerned with stimulating muscle contraction. His book, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (1906), which presented a synthesis of his discoveries, laid the foundations for modern neuroscience. Reflexes must be regarded as integrated activities of the total organism, not as the result of the activities of isolated ‘reflex arcs’ which was the then current notion. The first major evidence for this ‘nervous integration’ was his demonstration of ‘reciprocal innervation’ of muscles (1897, also called Sherrington’s Law): when one set of muscles is stimulated, muscles opposing the action of the first are simultaneously inhibited.[1] His findings showed that both in inhibitory and excitatory reactions ‘the skeletal musculature is treated practically as a whole’ by the adoption of ‘some total posture.’[2] Later important contributions include his papers on the stretch reflex (1924), central excitatory and inhibitory states (1925), and the motor unit (1930). He introduced many terms and concepts, including ‘synapse’ and ‘anti-gravity’ muscles. He also plotted the motor areas of the cerebral cortex and identified the regions that govern movement and sensation in particular parts of the body. The co-ordination of movement which integrates the whole body and ensures unity of action was the overall theme of his research.

Sherrington was, however, keenly aware of the limitations of his work; he believed that reflex action is only a small part of the integration of higher vertebrates and – for him – it was the first of three levels. The third level was the integration of mind and body. As he said in 1922:

For the living creature was fundamentally a unity, and if for purposes of study it had to be split into part-aspects and part-mechanisms [then] that separation was artificial. To try to comprehend the how of the living creature as a whole was one of the great privileges of the human intellect.[3]

He shared the view with the 16th century physician Jean Fernel (on whom he wrote a book): ‘Our task, now that we have dealt with the excellent structure of the body, cannot stop there, because man is a body and a mind together.’[4] Sherrington knew, however, that science had not yet the evidence or the means to bridge that gap.[5] [6]

Sherrington on inhibition

By the turn of the 19th century the term ‘inhibition’ had developed a distinct, specialized meaning in the context of physiology, which separated it both from common usage and its use in psychology. This coincided with, and symbolized, the separation of the disciplines of psychology and physiology. Sherrington was instrumental in this transformation with his research on ‘pure’ physiological inhibition. He stressed that inhibition is as essential to integrative action as excitation. (He pointed to the psychological ramifications of this in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1932, ‘Inhibition as a co-ordinative factor.’)

Sherrington and Magnus

Sir Charles Sherrington several times mentions Rudolf Magnus’ research in his writings and lectures. Sherrington had referred to Magnus’ work as early as 1915,[7] but a more general and public reference to it was made in 1922 in the lecture ‘On some aspects of animal mechanism’ which was reported in The British Medical Journal:

Maintenance of the erect position involved due co-operation of many separate muscles in many parts. Even in the absence of those portions of the brain to which consciousness was adjunct the lower nerve centres successfully brought about and maintained the co-operation of muscles resulting in the erect posture.[8]

This analysis was ‘owed mainly to Magnus and de Kleijn’.[9]

Other references are Sherrington’s Anniversary Addresses to the Royal Society of London, 1924 and 1925. In 1924 he ‘advert[s] to the work which Professor Magnus and his collaborators have recently brought to approximate completion, their admirable research in nerve-physiology engaging the Utrecht laboratory during the past fifteen years.’[10]  Magnus had published his findings that year in Germany, in Körperstellung. In 1925 Sherrington reports on Magnus’ Croonian Lecture:

Professor Magnus described analyses by himself and his colleagues of the pure reflex behaviour of the cat without cerebral hemispheres. He showed how, for example, a moving mouse before the eyes of such a cat attitudinizes the whole mechanism of the animal, exciting from it appropriate posture and direction in readiness for the final spring upon its prey. After that, ‘all the cat has to do is to decide to jump.’ To jump or not to jump, that becomes the question.[11]

It is likely that Alexander first read about Magnus’ work in The British Medical Journal for 24 November 1923, as this also contained a report of Dr Macdonald’s description of Alexander’s work in a discussion on ‘The Nervous Child’.[12]

Sherrington and Alexander

According to Walter Carrington Sherrington and Alexander met in the 1920s but did not make friends and Sherrington didn’t have lessons.[13] However, Sherrington later paid tribute to Alexander’s work in his The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (1946) which is a biography of the French physician Jean Fernel (1497–1558) – one of the founders of physiology (he may indeed have coined the word). Following a long discussion on the relationship between reflex and voluntary movements, Sherrington writes:

Mr Alexander has done a service to the subject by insistently treating each act as involving the whole integrated individual, the whole psycho-physical man. To take a step is an affair, not of this or that limb solely, but of the total neuro-muscular activity of the moment — not least of the head and neck.[14]

Alexander mentions Sherrington in the lectures ‘An unrecognized principle’ (1925), [15] and the ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934).[16]

In UCL, Alexander quotes from Sherrington’s pamphlet ‘The Brain and Its Mechanism’:[17]

I may seem to stress the preoccupation of the brain with muscle. Can we stress too much that preoccupation when any path we trace in the brain leads directly or indirectly to muscle? The brain seems a thoroughfare for nerve action passing on its way to the motor animal. It has been remarked that Life’s aim is an act not a thought. Today the dictum must be modified to admit that, often, to refrain from an act is no less an act than to commit one, because inhibition is co-equally with excitation a nervous activity.[18]

Alexander also mentions Sherrington elsewhere,[19] and Alexander quotes from Sherrington’s Man on His Nature, in the section ‘Sherrington on standing’ in UCL, and discusses it, especially the ‘how’ in knowing what we are doing.[20]

South African Libel Case

The Manpower article which defamed Alexander, contains a section ‘The misquoted Sherrington’, and consequently Sherrington’s writings feature prominently in the Libel Case. Although several eminent scientists, some of whom had worked with Sherrington, were examined as witnesses for the defence (i.e. the editors of Manpower), it is notable that Sherrington did not. He wrote a letter of support to F. M. Alexander which was quoted in the Libel Case[21] and put in as an exhibit.

12 Grasington Road, Eastbourne.

23rd July 1946

Dear Mr Alexander,

Thank you for your letter, which reaches me here.

I need not repeat to you that I appreciate the value of your teaching and observations. I was glad to take the occasion to say so in print. I know some of the difficulties which attach to putting your ideas across to those less versed in the study than yourself. Your disciples however can more and more disseminate them and multiply your call.

I am sorry you should be worried by a scurrilous attack. A German is of course liable to be violent and rude.

Believe me.

Very truly yours.

(sgd) Charles S. Sherrington[22]

Part of the letter was also quoted in Freedom to Change.[23]

Writings

Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey discusses Alexander’s relationship with Sherrington.[24]

Several endnotes cover Sherrington and his work in A&L and UCL.[25]

Sir Charles Scott Sherrington *27 November 1857 – †4 March 1952.

See also Inhibition, Rudolf Magnus, South African Libel Case.

References

[1] Although attributed with this discovery Sherrington himself pointed out it had been observed already in 1826 by the brothers C. and J. Bell. See Roger Smith, Inhibition (Free Association Books, 1992), p. 181.
[2] The Integrative Action of the Nervous System by Charles S. Sherrington (Cambridge University Press, 1947), pp. 326–27.
[3] See for example Charles S. Sherrington, ‘Some aspects of animal mechanism,’ address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 6 September 1922, reported in ‘Animal Mechanism,’ British Medical Journal (9 September 1922, p. 486.
[4] Jean Fernel quoted in Man on His Nature by Charles S. Sherrington (Cambridge University Press, 1951), p. 118.
[5] Judith P. Swazey, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 12, edited by C. C. Gillispie (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), pp. 395–403.
[6] The Integrative Action of the Nervous System by Charles S. Sherrington (Cambridge University Press, 1947), pp. xiii–xxiv.
[7] ‘Postural activity of muscle and nerve’, by Charles S. Sherrington in Brain, vol. 38, 1915, pp. 191–324, quoted in Selected Writings of Sir Charles Sherrington edited by D. Denny-Brown (Hamish Hamilton, 1939), p. 378.
[8] ‘Some aspects of animal mechanism’ by Charles S. Sherrington, address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 6 September 1922, reported in “Animal Mechanism,” British Medical Journal, 9 September 1922, pp. 485–86.
[9] ‘Some aspects of animal mechanism’ by Charles S. Sherrington, address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 6 September 1922, reported in “Animal Mechanism,” British Medical Journal, 9 September 1922, pp. 485–86.
[10] ‘Address of the President at the Anniversary Meeting, December 1, 1924’, by Charles S. Sherrington (pp. 254–266) in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. xcviiB (1925), p. 262.
[11] ‘Address of the President at the Anniversary Meeting, November 30, 1925,’ by Sir Charles S. Sherrington (pp. 107–121) in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. xcixB (1925), p. 115.
[12] (BMJ, ‘The significance of the brain stem in muscle tone and sense of position’, pp. 1001–02). In UCL, however, Alexander refers to Sherrington’s Presidential Address here quoted (1946), p. 116.
[13] Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2004), p. 16.
[14] The Endeavour of Jean Fernel by Charles Sherrington (1974, first published by Cambridge University Press, 1946), p. 89.
[15] ‘An Unrecognized Principle’ (1925) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), p. 148.
[16] ‘Bedford Physical Training College Lecture’ (1934) in Articles and Lectures by F. M. Alexander (Mouritz, 1995, London), pp. 180, 187–88.
[17] ‘The brain and its mechanism’ by Charles Sherrington (Cambridge University Press, 1937).
[18] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), p. 84.
[19] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), p. 107.
[20] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000), pp. 115–117.
[21] South African Libel Case 1948 Vol. 1 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2016), p. 376.
[22] South African Libel Case 1948 Vol. 2 edited by Jean M. O. Fischer (Mouritz, 2016), p. 610.
[23] Freedom to Change [Body Awareness in Action] by Frank Pierce Jones (Mouritz, 1997 [1976]), p. 90.
[24] Explaining the Alexander Technique by Walter Carrington, Seán Carey, (Mouritz, 2004), pp. 16–17.
[25] The Universal Constant in Living by F. Matthias Alexander (Mouritz, 2000).