William Halse Rivers came from an upper middle-class clerical and naval background, although his uncle – James Hunt – was a renowned speech therapist with interests in anthropology. Rivers’ achievements are considerable, spanning medically-related science – physiology, neurology, psychology, and psychiatry – as well as anthropology. Recent interest in Rivers has been stimulated by Pat Barker’s three fictional World War I novels – The Regeneration Trilogy (Barker 1996). Rivers is central to Barker’s stories, particularly as Medical Officer at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Barker’s acclaimed account of Rivers’ incisive clinical insights and approaches and, above all, his humanity, paint him as an intelligent, complex and attractive character. This judgement is borne out by his history and the testimonies of those who remembered him.
Rivers studied medicine in St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, in the late 1880s. His love of travel led him to seek positions as a ship’s surgeon (on one voyage, he spent a month in the company of George Bernard Shaw “many hours every day talking – the greatest treat of my life”). In 1890 Rivers studied at the National Hospital for Neurological Diseases in Queen Square, London, but in 1892, during a visit to Jena in Germany, he resolved “to devote his life to psychology, and especially to its morbid manifestations”. He was appointed to the Bethlem Hospital, London, the following year, albeit maintaining his links with Germany by working with Kraepelin in Heidelberg.
Not long after, Rivers was appointed to a lectureship in ‘the physiology of the sense organs’ at Cambridge University. He was described as “reclusive and diffident” at that time, and had a pronounced stutter. Nevertheless, he established an experimental laboratory with devoted research students.
In 1898, aged 34, Rivers joined Haddon’s Torres Straits Expedition as a self-trained anthropologist, during which he conducted sensory investigations and devised his own anthropological theories based on detailed genealogy of the islanders. This expedition initiated a relationship which is still of great importance for the islanders: the published reports were used to support successful land rights claims against the Australian government. Rivers’ interest in comparative research on sensory perceptions continued during the following years, when he extended his studies to English schoolchildren, Egyptians and Eskimos. During 1901 and 1902, he spent several months among the Todas, a pastoral hill people in SW India. A friend described him at this time as “very much of a recluse, almost entirely wrapped up in his sociological and anthropological studies, and sailing off whenever he could to his beloved Melanesian islands and people. He warned me rigorously against getting entangled in any College or University affairs: “They will take your mind off research” (Bartlett 1967).
Back in Cambridge between 1902 and 1906, Rivers divided his time between writing up past work and experimental psychology; and it was during this period that he co-founded the British Journal of Psychology (in 1904). One of his experiments involved severing a cutaneous nerve in the arm of a colleague, thus rendering an area of skin on the hand and lower arm insensitive, and studying the slow return of sensation as the nerve regenerated. Writing after Rivers’ death, the colleague recalled that “For five happy years we worked together on weekends and holidays in the quiet atmosphere of (Rivers’) rooms in St John’s College” (Head 1923).
It was during this period that Rivers was invited to deliver the Croonian Lectures at the Royal College of Physicians. In the accompanying paper (Rivers 1908), he wrestles with issues of bias in uncontrolled experiments, and stresses the importance of control groups in physiological experiments. He describes his use of ‘indistinguishable control mixtures’ to offset the effects of suggestion within his crossover experiments assessing the effects of caffeine and alcohol withdrawal.
Rivers returned to Melanesia in 1907-8, pursuing “intensive investigations” in the western Solomon Islands (Eddystone Island and Simbo) (Real people from this period of his work are fictionalised in the third of Barker’s trilogy, The Ghost Road). This work was never published, but in 1911, in his Presidential Address to Anthropology Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Rivers rejected social evolution as an explanation for human diversity, arguing that a people’s circumstances and history make them what they are (Rivers 1911). In 1914, he first published Kinship and Social Organisation (Rivers 1998) and The History of Melanesian Society (Rivers 1914). He regarded the latter as his most important contribution to science, and dedicated it to two Melanesian helpers who “showed such interest and intelligence in the task that it was clear how great might be our hopes for the future of Melanesia and Polynesia if their peoples were given a fair chance” (Rivers 1914).
Rivers was in Australia when the First World War broke out, and went from there again to Melanesia and the New Hebrides, and then on to New Zealand. For the last three years of the Great War, however, he worked as a psychiatrist dealing with war trauma (erroneously called ‘shell shock’). It has been estimated that it affected 7-10% of officers and 3-4% of other ranks, leading to 200,000 hospital admissions (Stone 1985). Rivers’ colleague Myers was “instructed to supervise the treatment of functional nervous and mental disorders in the British Expeditionary Force”, but was not always successful in preventing the military authorities from shooting patients for cowardice.
The Medical Research Council set up a Military Hospital at Maghull, near Liverpool, under the charge of Ronald Rows. Rows had read the works of P Janet and S Freud on conversion and dissociation and saw the relevance of their ideas about dissociated states following traumatic experiences. Maghull became a college of psychotherapy (unique in Britain), and Rivers was among those who passed through it before being posted to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. Rivers’ post-war books on psychodynamics, and Barker’s novels, are based on his experiences there, and after the war and he continued to promote Freudian ideas, albeit from a critical and original direction, and wrote much on dreams, neurosis and symbolism (as well as working to strengthen anthropology as a discipline).
After the War Rivers “became another and far happier man – diffidence gave place to confidence, reticence to outspokenness, a somewhat laboured literary style to one remarkable for ease and charm” (Myers 1922). He is quoted as saying “I have finished my serious work and I shall just let myself go.” He joined the Labour Party, opposing imperialism, and planning workers’ education courses. He entertained people in the larger rooms into which he had moved, and his Sunday breakfasts became celebrated for their discussions of literature, politics and society. He formed a discussion club – The Socratics – to which he brought influential visitors, including HG Wells, Arnold Bennett and Siegfried Sassoon.
In 1922 he campaigned as a Labour party candidate, and he was planning professional visits to Scandinavia, India and Germany when, alone in his college rooms in Cambridge one week-end, he developed an acute strangulated hernia. An emergency operation was done when he was found, but it came too late to save his life, and he died in the Evelyn Nursing Home in Cambridge. He was given an elaborate college funeral according to his own detailed instructions – funerary rites being one of his specialties.
Professor Graham Richards of Staffordshire University, England, has written that Rivers’ “unexpected and premature death in 1922 shocked and upset all his friends and associates. Shining through all the reminiscences of Rivers is how deeply he was loved, valued and admired by those who knew him. Some hints of why still come through in his writings, which are modest, highly sane, compassionate, yet undogmatic and, when called for, outspoken and original.” (Richards 2001).
Barker P (1996). The Regeneration Trilogy. London: Viking.
Bartlett FC (1967). WHR Rivers. The Eagle (St John’s College magazine), 156-160.
Head H (1923). Obituary notice of William Halse Rivers Rivers, Proc Roy Soc, i-v.
Myers CS (1922). The influence of the late WHR Rivers. Presidential Address to the Psychology Section of the British Association, published in Rivers, 1923, 149-181.
Richards G (2001). William Halse Rivers (1864-1922). The Psychologist 14:464.
Rivers WHR (1914). History of Melanesian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rivers WHR (1998). Kinship & social organisation. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press.
Stone M (1985). Shellshock and the psychologists. In: Bynum WF, Porter R, Shepherd M, eds. The Anatomy of Madness II. London: Tavistock, p 242-271.