Sharpey-Schäfer, Edward Albert

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(b. London, England, 2 June 1850; d. North Berwick, Scotland, 29 March 1935)

histology, physiology.

Schäfer was the third son of J.W.H. Schäfer, who was born in Hamburg but had become a naturalized Englishman and a merchant in the City of London, and Jessie Browne. He was educated at University College, London, where he came under the lasting influence of William Sharpey and where he qualified in medicine in 1874. When Sharpey retired from his chair in that year and Burdon-Sanderson was appointed his successor and first Jodrell professor of physiology, Schäfer became assistant professor, succeeding Burdon-Sanderson in 1883. He was appointed to the chair of physiology at the University of Edinburgh in 1899 and retired in 1933. In 1878 he married Maud Dixey, who died in 1896; they had two sons and two daughters. In 1900 he married Ethel Roberts. One daughter died young in tragic circumstances, and both sons were killed in World War I. In 1918 he took the name of Sharpey-Schäfer :party on Jack’s account [his elder son, John Sharpey Schäfer], partly because it was the name of my old teacher and master in physiology—the best friend I ever had.”

Schäfer received many distinctions. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1878, and was awarded a Royal Medal in 1902 and the Copley Medal in 1924. He was president of the British Association in 1912, of the Eleventh International Physiological Congress, which met at Edinburgh in 1923, and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1933. He also received many honorary degrees and was knighted in 1913.

In the laboratory Schäfer’s catholicity of interest was impressive. He edited and contributed six chapters on topics as diverse as the biochemistry of blood, the ductless glands, the neuron, and cerebral localization to the Textbook of Physiology, a work for advanced students, in which each chapter was written by a leading authority.

Schäfer’s early work was histological and embryological. His Essentials of Histology (1885) was one of the most widely used books on the subject in English; the sixteenth edition was published in 1954. One paper from those years in particular deserves to rank as a classic although its importance was not appreciated at the time. Whether nerve cells were separate and individual units, or whether their processes anastomosed to form a nerve net, was an eagerly debated question in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The main protagonists were Golgi and Ramón y Cajal. As a result of the interest of his friend G.J. Ramanes in the problem of locamotion in Medusae, Schäfer was led to study the structure of the subumbrellar nervous plexus in Aurelia aurita. He found that each nerve fiber was distinct from and nowhere structurally continuous with any other; he thought it reasonable to assume fiber-to-fiber transmission from “inductive action,” possibly electric, the result being the same as if there were a real network.

With E. Klein and J. N. Langley, Schäer was appointed in 1881 to adjudicate on the conflicting claims of Goltz, on the one hand, and of Ferrier and Yeo, on the other, about the effects of ablation of defined areas of the mammalian cerebral cortex. This aroused his interest in cerebral localization and led him to seek the collaboration of Victor Horsley in a series of experiments that appreciably added to the results of Ferrier. This interest was later extended to include the spinal cord, and until the end of his career he worked intermittently on neurophysiological problems.

Schäer made his most notable contributions in the field of endocrinology, and his papers with George Oliver on the effects of suprarenal of pituitary extracts are landmarks in the history of physiology. Oliver, a practicing physician, sought Schäer’s advice on the supposed effects of orally administrated suprarenal and other extracts. The two men showed that while most were inactive, intravenous injections of suprarenal extract produced a dramatic rise in arterial blood pressure, arterial constriction, vagal stimulation (reflex, as we now know), and an increase in the rate and force of cardiac contraction in vagotomized animals. They also pointed out that these effects derived from the medulla, not from the cortex of the gland. They then demonstrated the pressor effect of pituitary extract given intravenously. After Howell’s discovery that this depended only on the posterior lobe of the gland, Schäfer continued to investigate the problem, which was the subject of his Croonian lecture to the Royal Society in 1909. He found, however, that posterior lobe extract apparently caused an increase in renal volume and a diuresis, independent of its pressor effect. These observations on the kidney led to considerable confusion among workers in the field, which was dissipated only by E. B. Verney’s unequivocal demonstration of the antidiuretic effect in 1926.

The importance of the pancreas in carbohydrate metabolism had been obvious since the experiments of Joseph von Mering and Minkowski in 1889. As early as 1894 Schäfer pointed out on morphological grounds that the islet tissue might act collectively as an organ of internal secretion by means of which the pancreas produced its effect on the blood sugar level, an illustration of his prescience and of his oft-stated belief in the value of histology to physiology. In 1913, in his Lane lectures, he suggested the name “insuline” for the still hypothetical substance and also introduced the terms “autacoid” and “chalone” into endocrinology. (He later pointed out [The Endocrine Organs, 2nd ed., II. 343] that he was not the first to use the word “insuline.”)

Schäfer’s practical turn of mind showed itself in the invention of new laboratory methods and useful modifications of existing procedures. His name became familiar to many who could have had only the haziest idea of his eminence as a physiologist following the publication in 1903 of his method of artificial respiration–now superseded by mouth-to-mouth inflation of the lungs–for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal of the Royal Life Saving Society in 1909.

An uncompromising opponent of the antivivisection movement, Schäfer did not mince words in public about what he regarded as the hypocrisy of those opposed to experiments on living animals. His presidential address to the British Association in 1912 offended many lay people, who considered it a dogmatically materialistic explanation of the origins of life in terms of physics and chemistry. During World War I, when anti-German hysteria was at its height, his forthright but unavailing defense of his colleague W. Cramer did not increase his popularity, even in academic circles.

Schäfer was an original member of the Physiological Society; and in 1926 he was appointed to write its history for its jubilee, a task for which he was uniquely qualified–knowing personally almost all the members since its inception. In 1908 he founded the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology, which he continued to edit until 1933:” in that year a special number was dedicated to him, written entirely by his pupils, the number and worldwide distribution of whom testified to his influence as a teacher. He remained an active experimentalist almost until his retirement, and one of his last papers reported his observation on the results of nerve section and regeneration. He himself, at the age of seventy-seven, had been the experimental subject.


I. Original Works. Schäfer’s output of published work was very large. It includes numerous short contributions to the Proceedings of the Physiological and Royal societies, about sixty full-length scientific papers, an impressive number of textbooks, and lectures and addresses.

His contributions to science, apart from his textbooks, are to be found mainly in the Philosophical Transactions and the Proceedings of the Royal Society, in Brain, in Journal of Physiology, and in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology. Of those on the nervous system, the most important are “Observations on the Nervous System of Aurelia aurita.” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 169 (1878), 563–575: “A Record of Experiments Upon the Functions of the Cerebral Cortex,” ibid., B179 (1888), 1–45, written with Victor Horsley; “An Investigation Into the Function of the Occipital and Temporal Lobes of the Monkey’s Brain,” ibid., 303–328, written with S.. Brown; and “The Nerve Cell Considered as the Basis of Neurology,” in Brain, 16 (1893), 134–169.

His fundamental work with G. Oliver on the Suprarenal gland was reported in preliminary from in Journal of Physiology, 16 (1894), i-vi, and 17 (1895), ix-xiv, and in full, as “The physiological Effects of Extracts of the Suprarenal Capsules,” 18 (1895), 230–276. The results of his research with Oliver on the Suprarenal Capsules,” 18 (1895), 230–276. The results of his research with Oliver on the pituitary are to be found briefly in Journal of Physiology, 18 (1895), 277–279; more fully, with S. Vincent, in “The physiological Effects of Extracts of the Pituitary Body,” ibid., 25 (1899), 87–97; and, with P. T. Herring, in “On the Action of Pituitary Extracts on the Kidney,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 199 (1908), 1–29. His Oliver-Sharpey lectures, “The Present Condition of Our Knowledge Regarding the Suprarenal Capsules,” in British Medical Journal, (1908), 1 , 1277–1281, 1346–1351; and his Croonian lecture, “The Functions of the Pituitiary Body,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society, B81 (1909), 442–468, also should be consulted.

Schäfer’s early statements about the possible function of the islets of Langerhans are given in his address to the Physiological Section of the British Association, in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 64 (1894), 795–814; that to the British Medical Association, in British Medical Journal (1895), ii, 341–348; and in his Textbook of Physiology, 1 (Edinburgh-London, 1898), 930; this book is a well-documented and valuable historical guide to the physiological knowledge of the time.

Schäfer’s Lane lectures, given at Stanford University in 1913, were published as An Introduction to the Study of the Endocrine Glands and internal Secretions (Stanford, 1914) and include a lengthy discussion on the terminology of the subject. They were published in a revised form as The Endocrine Organs: An Introduction to the Study of Internal Secretion (London-New York, 1916: 2nd ed., enl., 2 vols., 1924–1926.

His work on artificial respiration was reported as “Description of a Simple and Efficient Method of performing Artificial Respiration in the Human Subject Especially in Cases of Drowning, To Which Is Appended Instructions for the Treatment of the Apparently Drowned,” in Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, 87 1904), 609–623.

Schäfer’s presidential address to the British Association, in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 82 (1912), 3–36, is an interesting exposition of his views on physiology in general: as is his Horsley memorial lecture, “The Relations of Surgery and Physiology,” in British Medical Journal (1923), 2 , 739–745. In addition to his History of the Physiological Society During Its First Fifty Years 1876–1926 (London, 1927) an invaluable source of material is the collection of Sharpey-Schäfer papers in the Library of the Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, London. These include his private diaries, from which the quoted explanation of his change of name was taken, letters from physiologists all over the world covering a period of sixty years, and many other documents and newspaper clippings.

II. Secondary Literature. The only secondary sources appear to be the obituary notices in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Physiology..., 25 (1935), 99–104; Nature, 135 (1935), 608–610; Lancet (1935) I . 843–845; British Medical Journal (1935), i, 741–742; Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, no. 4 (1935); Dictionary of National Biography, 1931–1940; and Sherrington’s Sharpey-Schäfer lecture, in Edinburgh Medical Journal, n.s. 42 (1935), 393–406.

Douglass W. Taylor