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Kinnier Wilson and Sherrington
  1. E H Reynolds
  1. Dr E H Reynolds, Institute of Epileptology, King’s College, Denmark Hill Campus, Weston Education Centre, Cutcombe Road, London SE5 9PJ, UK; reynolds{at}

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Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson (1878–1937) and Sir Charles Sherrington (1857–1952) were two of the most distinguished figures in 20th century neurology and neuroscience. Kinnier Wilson is best remembered now for the disease that bears his name1 and for his scholarly and influential textbook which was first published posthumously in 1940.2 In 1920, he also founded and edited the Journal of Neurology and Psychopathology, which evolved into the present Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. Sherrington was the outstanding neurophysiologist of the first half of the 20th century, famous for his studies of the reflex and integrative functions of the nervous system and for his philosophical and poetic contributions.3 4

Through my contact with Kinnier Wilson’s son, James, with whom I collaborated on Babylonian neurology,5 6 two documents have come to light which confirm a warm professional relationship between Kinnier Wilson and Sherrington late in their respective academic careers.

Figure 1 is a letter from ED (later Lord) Adrian (1889–1977) indicating that Sherrington wished to propose Kinnier Wilson for the Fellowship of the Royal Society, supported also by Adrian. The date of the letter is December 1932 and the references to Sweden and Stockholm clearly indicate that this proposal was discussed by Sherrington and Adrian when they were in that city to jointly receive their Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine that month. Sherrington had already served as president of the Royal Society from 1920 to 1925, and Adrian later went on to serve as president from 1950 to 1955. With the assistance of the Royal Society Library, I have established that the proposal was first considered by the Royal Society in 1933 and, as was invariably the case, carried forward to 1934. Indeed the proposal was again carried forward to 1935, 1936 and 1937, gathering support from AE Garrod, JBS Haldane and T Graham Brown, among others, on the way. Unfortunately, Kinnier Wilson died prematurely at the age of 59 on 12 May before the 1937 committee met.

Figure 1 December 1932 letter from Adrian (1889–1977) to Kinnier Wilson (1878–1937) on behalf of Sherrington (1857–1952) seeking permission to propose Kinnier Wilson for the Fellowship of the Royal Society.

Figure 2 is a telegram sent on 29 July 1935 from Sherrington at his home in Ipswich to Kinnier Wilson congratulating him at the start of the Second International Congress of Neurology which was held in London at University College Hospital between 29 July and 2 August 1935. Kinnier Wilson was the secretary general of the congress. Sherrington had agreed to be president but had had to withdraw because of ill health and was substituted by Gordon Holmes (1876–1965).7 According to Critchley,8 Kinnier Wilson and Gordon Holmes were the two supreme neurologists in the world in the 1920s and 1930s.

Figure 2 Telegram from Sherrington (1857–1952) to Kinnier Wilson (1878–1937) at the start of the Second International Congress of Neurology at University College Hospital, London on 29 July 1935.

There are hints about Sherrington’s health in Adrian’s letter to Kinnier Wilson (fig 1), but the main evidence is in a letter from Sherrington to Granit, dated 15 July 1934 from Droitwich Spa4:

“I am under treatment here – the saline baths are strong and do me good. I had a long illness this spring and last winter from rheumatism”.

Kinnier Wilson and Sherrington had met earlier at the First International Congress of Neurology held in Berne, Switzerland, from 31 August to 4 September 1931, when Sherrington invited Kinnier Wilson to contribute to the symposium he had arranged and chaired on “Muscle tonus, anatomy, physiology and pathology”.9 This was an obvious area of common interest between the two of them, following Kinnier Wilson’s seminal influence on the concept of extrapyramidal disease and his views on “the old and the new motor systems”.10 Kinnier Wilson’s paper at the congress was entitled “Disorders of tonus at different physiological levels, with special reference to the cortex”.9 Lord Cohen3 described Sherrington’s impact on the congress:

“I vividly recall, such a momentous occasion could never be forgotten, when at the First International Congress of Neurology at Berne in 1931, Leon Asher introduced Sherrington and described him as ‘the philosopher of the nervous system’. The whole audience of 2,000 members stood and cheered unceasingly until Sherrington, overcome with emotion, signalled them to be seated”.

It was hardly surprising therefore that Sherrington was elected to the presidency of the next congress to be held in London in 1935, with Kinnier Wilson as secretary general. Meanwhile, 1 year later in 1932, Sherrington and Adrian received the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine and proposed Kinnier Wilson for the Fellowship of the Royal Society. Although sadly Kinnier Wilson died before probable election he had the rare and possibly unique honour of being proposed by two Nobel Prize winners who also both served as presidents of the Royal Society.


I am grateful to James Kinnier Wilson for permission to publish figs 1 and 2.

I am also grateful to Keith Moore, Head of Library and Information Services at the Royal Society, for information about the outcome of the Sherrington and Adrian proposal on behalf of Kinnier Wilson.



  • Competing interests: None.

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