Sheila Sherlock

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Sheila Sherlock
Sheila Sherlock
Born 31 March 1918
Dublin, Ireland
Died 30 December 2001(2001-12-30) (aged 83)
London, England, UK
Residence United Kingdom
Nationality British
Fields Medicine
Institutions Royal Free Hospital
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Known for Hepatology

Professor Dame Sheila Patricia Violet Sherlock, Mrs. James, FRCP, FRCP Ed, FRS[1] (31 March 1918 – 30 December 2001) was a British physician, hepatologist and teacher.

Early life[edit]

Sheila Sherlock was born on 31 March 1918 in Dublin but early life was spent in London, before her family moved to Folkestone in 1929. She was educated at the Folkestone County School for Girls. She was rejected by several colleges when she applied for a place to read medicine; in pre-World War II Britain, female applicants to medical schools were at a great disadvantage. She did gain a place at Edinburgh University in 1936. Her ability became evident, and she graduated in 1941, only the second woman to be awarded an Ettles Scholarship for finishing top of her year.[2]


She remained in Edinburgh to take up the post of Assistant Lecturer in Surgery offered to her by Professor Sir James Learmonth, and published her first paper with Learmonth in 1942;[3] she later recounted that Learmonth had taught her how to conduct and document research. In the same year she was appointed House Physician to Professor Sir John McMichael at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital.[citation needed]

In this post she worked on hepatitis, which she was able to continue from 1943 to 1947 with funding from the Medical Research Council and subsequently with the award of the Beit Memorial Fellowship. She was awarded her MD with a thesis on The Liver in Disease: with special reference to aspiration liver biopsy, receiving a Gold Medal from Edinburgh University.[4]

She conducted research into portal hypertension, hepatic encephalopathy and ascites at this time. In 1947 she spent a year at Yale University's School of Medicine as a Rockefeller Travelling Fellow, working on carbohydrate metabolism and liver disease.[5] In 1948 she was appointed Lecturer in Medicine and Consultant Physician at Hammersmith Hospital at the age of 30. In 1951, aged 33, she was named a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, making her, at the time, the youngest woman to receive this qualification.[citation needed]

In 1959 she was appointed the first professor of medicine at London's Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. She founded the liver unit which was located in a temporary wooden structure on the roof of the hospital in Gray’s Inn Road; despite its location, the department attracted trainees from around the world, and many current leaders in the field of hepatology spent time there. Research in several different areas of liver disease was undertaken:bilirubin metabolism, haemochromatosis, cholestasis, drug-induced liver disease, albumin synthesis, portal hypertension and ascites, autoimmune liver disease and its treatment with corticosteroids, and the use of liver biopsy in the diagnosis of liver disease were all studied. In 1974 the department moved to the new hospital in Hampstead, where it was situated close to the clinical wards, on the 10th floor. Research continued there, with viral hepatitis, liver transplantation and endoscopic treatment of varices all becoming important areas of study. She retired from the Chair of Medicine in 1983, but continued to see patients, conduct research, and write.[citation needed]


Sherlock was known as a clear and succinct writer, and she published over 600 papers in scientific journals. Her most widely known book, Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System,[6] was first published in 1955, It was written solely by her until the 9th edition in 1993, and is now in its 12th edition. She was also editor of Gut and the Journal of Hepatology.


  • Co-founder (with Hans Popper) and president, International Association for the Study of the Liver (1958–1962)
  • President, British Society of Gastroenterology (1973)
  • Founder, and later President, British Liver Trust (1988–2001)
  • Founder, American Association for the Study of Liver Disease

She was the first woman in the UK to be appointed Professor of Medicine as well as the first woman to be Vice President of the Royal College of Physicians. She held honorary degrees from universities including Lisbon (1981), Yale (1983), London (1989) and Cambridge (1995), and was awarded the Buckston Browne Prize (1953), the Thannhauser Prize (1980) and the Gold Medal of the British Medical Association (1985).[citation needed]


Personal life[edit]

In 1951 Sheila Sherlock married Dr Geraint "Gerry" James, a physician and researcher into sarcoidosis. They celebrated their golden wedding two weeks before her death in London on 30 December 2001, aged 83, from pulmonary fibrosis. She was survived by her husband, two daughters, Amanda and Auriole, and two granddaughters. Her daughter Amanda, a Baptist minister, conducted her funeral.[10]


When Dr Sherlock started her medical career, little was known about liver disease. Her work helped to establish hepatology as a medical specialty. She pioneered the use of needle liver biopsy.,[11] which had been used purely as a research tool, based on the technique of Sir John McMichael; this improved understanding of the pathology of liver disease and is used in the diagnosis of liver diseases today. The liver unit that she set up at the Royal Free Hospital became the centre for both research into liver disease and the education of trainees in the specialty.

In 1966, she developed the standard test for Primary Biliary Cirrhosis[12] and later showed that it was an autoimmune disease, with Deborah Doniach of the Middlesex Hospital. She also demonstrated the efficacy of corticosteroid therapy for autoimmune hepatitis.[13] She also recognised the link between hepatitis B and hepatocellular carcinoma [14]

In 2006, the Sheila Sherlock Prizes were founded with a donation from her husband, Dr Geraint James; two prizes are awarded to the highest achieving medical students at the UCL Medical School.[15]

In March 2008, the 90th anniversary of her birth, the liver unit at the Royal Free Hospital which she founded was renamed the Sheila Sherlock Liver Centre in her memory.


  1. ^ Pepys, M. (2003). "Dame Sheila Patricia Violet Sherlock. 31 March 1918 - 30 December 2001 Elected FRS 2001". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 49: 475–493. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2003.0028. PMID 14989286. 
  2. ^ Obituary, The Guardian, 19 January 2002
  3. ^ Sherlock, S. P. V.; Learmonth, J. R. (1942). "Aneurym of the splenic artery: With an account of an example complicating Gaucher's disease". British Journal of Surgery 30 (118): 151. doi:10.1002/bjs.18003011809. 
  4. ^ Archives Hub Papers and correspondence of Dame Sheila Sherlock, 1918-2001, hepatologist
  5. ^ Williams, R. (2002). "Dame Sheila Sherlock: Mca Patron and Hepatologist Extraordinaire". Alcohol and Alcoholism 37 (6): 622. doi:10.1093/alcalc/37.6.622. 
  6. ^ Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System, 11th edition. S. Sherlock & J. Dooley (ISBN 978-0-632-05582-1)
  7. ^ "Munks Roll - Sheila Patricia Violet Sherlock". Royal College of Physicians. Retrieved 14 October 2010. 
  8. ^ "Professor Dame Sheila Sherlock". Universal Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz (in German). Retrieved 2011-05-23. 
  9. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". The Royal Society. Retrieved 14 October 2010. 
  10. ^ "Correction: Dame Sheila Sherlock". BMJ 324 (7333): 366i–. 2002. doi:10.1136/bmj.324.7333.366i. 
  11. ^ Sherlock, S. "Aspiration liver biopsy. Technique and diagnostic application". The Lancet, 1945; 2: pp. 397-401
  12. ^ D. Doniach, I.M. Roitt, J.G. Walker & S. Sherlock (July 1966). "Tissue antibodies in primary biliary cirrhosis, active chronic (lupoid) hepatitis, cryptogenic cirrhosis and other liver diseases and their clinical implications". Clin. Exp. Immunol. 1 (3): 237–62. PMC 1579190. PMID 5330183. 
  13. ^ Cook, G.C., Mulligan, R. & Sherlock, S. (April 1971). "Controlled prospective trial of corticosteroid therapy in active chronic hepatitis". Q. J. Med. 40 (158): 159–85. PMID 4933363. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  14. ^ Sherlock, Fox, Niazi & Scheuer (June 1970). "Chronic liver disease and primary liver-cell cancer with hepatitis-associated (Australia) antigen in serum". Lancet 1 (7659): 1243–7. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(70)91737-X. PMID 4192492. 
  15. ^ UCL Student Handbook Online - The Sheila Sherlock Prizes