The slide collection amassed by Sir Charles Sherrington during the course of this long and illustrious career is rich both in its origins and in its contents. Besides reflecting the cutting-edge nature of his neurophysiological work it also demonstrates how slides were scientific commodities which might be exchanged between colleagues, bought at a specialist London store, or produced ad hoc in the midst of experimental investigations as a means to recording their progress.
One of the most curious slides which turned up in the Sherrington Box bears alongside the label of its owner another one which might appear at first rather incongruous: ‘West-Riding Asylum’. Above this is the hand-written date ’18.12.96’.
In fact, the relation between the Physiological Laboratory at Oxford and the institution at Wakefield in Yorkshire is not quite as incongruous as it might at first seem. The medical director of the West- Riding Asylum since 1866 had been none other than James Crichton Brown, who succeeded in introducing enlightened methods of treatment for the mentally ill under his care while pursuing his career as a front-line neurologist. Brown eventually went on to become the co-founder and editor of the journal Brain.
More worrying is the likewise hand-written name on the slide above the technical details of the section of the cervical cord displaying nerve cells with dendrites – it is that of Fanny Hancock.
At this point the story of the slide threatens to take on a sinister feel1. Fanny Hancock had been brought up under impoverished circumstances. Much of her past remains unclear, but by 1886 she was married and had a serious drinking problem. After her husband had left her with their ten-year-old daughter, she took up with another man and soon moved into lodgings with him in Folkestone. Fanny brought two further children into a household environment shaped by alcohol and violence. Already in a poor state of mental health and following a failed attempt to kill one of her children, she attempted to put an end to her own life and that of her two youngest children by walking out into the sea on Sandgate beach in May 1888. While Fanny and her son were rescued from the waters by bystanders, her youngest daughter died. Subsequently put on trial for murder, Fanny eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. On account of insanity, her death sentence was later commuted and she was ordered to spend the remainder of her natural life incarcerated in a lunatic asylum.
The case of Fanny Hancock achieved something like public notoriety at the time. Her reprieve was announced in The Times of 25 July 18882. However, the reporter puts her crime and sentence in a somewhat more nuanced light, describing her as ‘suffering from melancholy’ and noting that she ‘did not understand what she was doing when she pleaded guilty’.
Fanny Hancock’s alcohol abuse and her mental condition made her an interesting subject in the world of physiology following her death. We can only presume that her body was conveyed to the West-Riding Asylum from her place of incarceration in Kent and that Sherrington obtained his slide from there either for teaching purposes or for his own investigations. Nor would it have been simply a case of scientific motivation on his part. Sherrington was, as we now know through our historical research into his life, his work, and his letters, a man with a strong social conscience and was particularly concerned for the well-being of the less well-off members of the community.
Philip Beeley November 19th, 2013