American Society for Peripheral Nerve (ASPN)
Issue 13, Summer 2022
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Blast from the Past: Forgotten Fascicles
Aron Wahrman, MD, MBA
(Occasional notes from an unapologetic bibliophile and indulged husband)

Moving, Downsizing, and Finding Sir Charles Sherrington: Where Did The Term “Synapse” Come From?
“I think we should move”, the wise spouse Peg suddenly uttered, as I gazed aimlessly at a full wall of bookshelves in our home of over 22 years. Jolted from my reverie, I said “What?’.

“I think we should move “, she repeated. “We are down to one child [of five] who is leaving for college in the fall and we don’t need such a big house anymore.” “But what of the CD and old book collection? “ I plaintively stammered, (selfishly unmasking my first thoughts !) “Almost everything is on Spotify and I’ll make sure you have a nice room for the books” she calmy replied with steely resolve.. That conversation was in March; we are now already moved into our new digs. I’ve got to hand it to my wife; she is definitive, organized and focused, even hiring special movers to carefully handle 156 boxes of volumes and ephemera. Then another dose of reality; in the midst of our move, Dr Alison Snyder-Warwick-- beloved, intrepid editor of these pages --reminded me that a Forgotten Fascicles was due; would I be able to submit something? I swallowed hard and eventually said yes as a wave of panic washed over me --- where am I going to find a book to write about in that cavern of still taped-up cardboard…. numbered but not labeled

Like the master brewer at Guinness who bequeathed to us the “student’s t-test” --rather than sample every “batch” (or drown my angst in a Guinness) I opened some random boxes in the lot, and within five of them, got lucky. There it was, an 1881 volume on Artificial Anaesthesia and Anesthetics, by Rush Medical College (Chicago) Professor of Physiology and Neurology, Henry Lyman, MD. The index contains no mention of cocaine, local anesthetics, Halsted, etc; rather the book is devoted primarily to the inhalational agents of that time . So why this particular tome? My copy bears the ownership inscription of “Ch S Sherrington, Liverpool”. The Cambridge educated Sir Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) is regarded as one of the great neurophysiologists of all time. In his student days he worked with Koch and Virchow. After teaching in Cambridge and London, he served as the Chair in Physiology at the University of Liverpool (1895-1913) and then at Magdalen College, Oxford (1913-1935). He was knighted in 1922. For his work on the function of neurons, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine with E. D. Adrian in 1932. The Physiology departments/buildings on the Liverpool and Oxford campuses are still named after him.

But back to the name of our ASPN Bulletin… In 1897, Sherrington was asked to write the neural chapters in the 7th edition of Sir Michael Foster's Textbook of Physiology. Whether centrally or peripherally, it was believed that neurons were single full-length units; little was known as yet histologically or geographically about the connections and communication between nerve cells until the contemporaneous work of Ramon y Cajal and “neuron theory”.

“The word ‘synapse’ was introduced by Sherrington in Foster’s Textbook. Sherrington struggled to find a good term that emphasized a union between two separate elements… “the actual term ‘synapse’ was suggested by the classical scholar Sir Arthur Woollgar Verrall (Cambridge), a friend and university colleague of Foster. The word was derived from the Greek synapsis, meaning ‘conjunction’ which in turn derives from…’together’ and ‘to fasten’ “(1/2)

Sherrington took pains to define this as a dynamic and not static junction of the cells. It can be viewed as a neologistic/semantic as well as scientific touch point for so many of his contributions- motor unit, inhibition, reciprocal muscle motion, reflexes, etc… Clearly he felt that not only must the science have meaning, but it would need to be described with the added precision of the humanist’s and linguist’s ear; Sherrington was the ultimate scientist and scholar whose work continues to have implications from bench to bedside in surgery, neurology, pharmacology and anesthesia.

(By the way, I think I’ll now use some of that structure and function to do more unpacking; but first a Guinness…moves and deadlines are brutal and that was a close one…!)
  1. Molnar, Z., Brown, R.E. Insights into the life and work of Sir Charles Sherrington. Nature Reviews/Neuroscience. 2010. 11:429-436
  2. Tansey, EM. Not Committing Barbarisms: Sherrington and the Synapse, 1897. Brain Research Bulletin. 1997. 44:3:211-212
The scene of the find.
Sir Michael Foster Sir Arthur Verrall Sir Michael FosterHarvey Cushing and
Sir Charles Sherrington (1938)

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