Sharpey, William

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(b. Arbroath, Scotland, 1 April 1802; d. London, England, 11 April 1880)

anatomy, physiology.

Sharpey was the posthumous son and fifth child of Henry Sharpey, a shipowner of Folkestone who had settled in Arbroath, Scotland, and his wife Mary Balfour. He was educated at Arbroath and at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D. in 1823. He became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1830. From 1831 to 1836 he taught anatomy extramurally in Edinburgh and in the latter year was appointed to the chair of anatomy and physiology at University college, London, in which post he spent the remainder of his professional life, retiring in 1874. He never married.

Sharpey became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1834 and five years later was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1834 and five years later was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, of which he was secretary from 1853 to 1872. At various times he was a member of many other official and learned bodies. He appears, after his London appointment, largely to have given up original work in favor of teaching and administration.

Although many who knew Sharpey considered him the real founder of the British school of physiology, comparing him in this respect with Johannes Müllerp in Germany, he mad no great impact as a young man, and his appointment to the London chair evoked much surprise. He was of course a product of the famous Edinburgh medical school, still deeply influenced by the tradition of Cullen, John Gregory, and the first two Monros. Little is known of his early life, other than that he traveled extensively in Europe, studying under Panizza, Rudolphi, and Tiedemann and became familiar with French and German science and medicine. He published little original work—a few papers on cilia and ciliary motion, a long note on decidual structure in the English translation of Müller’s Handbuch der Physiologie des Menschen, and a description in Quain’s Elements of Anatomy of what are still referred to as Sharpey’s bone fibers.

Sharpey’s considerable authority stemmed from his membership of what would now be called the scientific “establishment,” and from the fact that he was a great and inspiring teacher, who from his chair and by virtue of his position in the Royal Society did all that he could to further the development of physiology. His pupils included Joseph Lister; Michael Foster, who founded the Cambridge school of physiology; and E. A. Schäfer, who many years later added Sharpey’s name to his own. He also collaborated with Burdon-Sanderson, who succeeded him and later became first holder of the chair of physiology at Oxford. These men, writing in the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, were inclined to attribute much of Sharpey’s influence to hs firm opposition to vitalism in biology; but he was not averse to using vitalistic concepts in certain contexts, and the philosophy underlying his physiology must be interpreted with some care.

In the last years of his life Sharpey was much disturbed by the increasing agitation in Britain against experiments on living animals, and he kept in close touch with the negotiations that culminated in the act of 1876 “to amend the Law relating to Cruelty to Animals.” In 1876 he was elected, along with Darwin, to honorary membership of the newly founded Physiological Society, an expression of the widely held opinion that for many years he had been the mainstay of physiology in Britain.


The outlines of Sharpey’s career are given in the obituary notice in Proceedings of the Royal Society. 31 (1880), xi-xix; in the Dictionary of National Biography; and in E. A. Shapey-Schäfer, History of the Physiological Society (London, 1927), esp. 17–19, 31. The only modern and the only full-length study, by D. W. Taylor in Medical History, 15 (1971), 126–153, 241–259, includes a bibliography of his published work and draws to a considerable extent on unpublished MSS: sets of lecture notes including those taken by Lister, miscellaneous papers, referees’ reports to the Royal Society, and letters written toward the end of his life to E. A. Schäfer and others. Sharpey’s presidential address to the Physiological Section of the British Medical Association, in British Medical Journal (1862), ii, 162–171, is of considerable interest because it sets out his views about the state of his science after a lifetime of teaching and from a position of eminence among his colntemporaris.

Douglass W. Taylor