Sheila Patricia Violet Sherlock was born in Dublin on 31 March 1918. Her early childhood was spent in London before the family moved to the Kent coast in 1929. After attending the Folkestone County School for Girls, she won a place to study medicine at Edinburgh University (1936) where her lecturers included Stanley Davidson, Sir John McMichael and Sir James Learmonth. When she graduated in 1941, she came top of her year and became only the second woman to receive the Ettles Scholarship. Sherlock remained at Edinburgh to take up the post of Assistant Lecturer in Surgery offered to her by Learmonth. Her first publication, jointly with Learmonth, on aneurysm of the splenic artery appeared in the British Journal of Surgery in 1942. Also in that year she was appointed House Physician to Sir John McMichael at Hammersmith Hospital (Royal Postgraduate Medical School), a move that was to have a profound effect on the course of her career. She worked on hepatitis and was able to continue this work at Hammersmith from 1943 to 1947, initially with funding from the Medical Research Council and, later, through the award of the Beit Memorial Fellowship. Her MD thesis on 'The Liver in Disease: with special reference to aspiration liver biopsy' (Edinburgh, 1945) was awarded a Gold Medal. In this period she also carried out important work on the effect of malnutrition on the liver. On the award of a Rockefeller Travelling Fellowship, Sherlock spent a year at Yale University School of Medicine (1947-1948). Her research concentrated on carbohydrate metabolism, though she was also able to meet a number of American researchers in liver disease. On her return she took up the post of Lecturer in Medicine and Consultant Physician at Hammersmith Hospital and the next eleven years saw a prolific and diverse output of papers on diseases of the liver. Major studies by Sherlock and her team included those on portal systemic encephalopathy and portal hypertension. Her book Diseases of the Liver and Biliary System, acknowledged as a classic study, was published in 1955. During these years she also organised the CIBA Symposium (1950), the first international meeting on liver disease, and, with Hans Popper, conceived the idea of founding the International Association for the Study of Liver Disease (IASL). Sherlock was chosen as the IASL's first President in 1958.
In 1959 Sherlock moved to the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, London, as Chair of the Department of Medicine, remaining there until her retirement in 1983. Her Unit quickly gained an international reputation for liver research, attracting specialists from all over the world and making major contributions to hepatology. From 1975 she was heavily involved in the annual 'Liver Update' meetings at the hospital which always featured speakers from Europe and the USA alongside those from Sherlock's team. Sherlock's professional responsibilities included editor of Gut (1967-1975), President of the International Association for the Study of the Liver (1958-1962), President of the British Society of Gastroenterology (1973), and President of the British Liver Trust (1988-2001). She received a great many honours for her work including Dame Commander of the British Empire (1978); Fellow of the Royal Society (2001); Honorary Fellowships of several international medical colleges; and Honorary Degrees from many universities including Lisbon (1981), Yale (1983), London (1989) and Cambridge (1995). Prizes awarded to her include the Buckston Browne Prize (1953), the Thannhauser Prize (1980) and the Gold Medal of the British Medical Association (1985). In 1951 she was the youngest woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1951 she married D. Geraint James and they had two children. Sheila Sherlock died on 30 December 2001. For a comprehensive biography of Sherlock see James S. Dooley, 'Dame Sheila Sherlock (1918-2001): Life and Work', Falk Foundation e.V., 2003.