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W. H. R. Rivers

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Whr rivers sml

Photograph of W.H.R. Rivers

William Halse Rivers Rivers M.D.(Lond.), F.R.C.P.(Lond.), F.R.S., Medical Officer, Craiglockhart War Hospital (March 12, 1864 - 4 June, 1922) was an English anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist, best known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers during World War I. Rivers' most famous patient was the poet Siegfried Sassoon. He is also famous for his participation in the Torres Straits expedition of 1898, and his consequent seminal work on the subject of kinship.



Rivers was born in 1864 in Luton, near Chatham, Kent, son of Elizabeth Hunt and Henry Fredrick Rivers, an Anglican priest and speech therapist who treated Lewis Carroll among others. The oldest of four children (siblings were Charles Hay Rivers, born in 1865, Ethel Marion Rivers, born in 1867 and Katharine Elizabeth Rivers, born in 1871) William (or 'Willie' as he was called throughout his childhood) took his name from his uncle 'William Rivers' who, according to family tradition, had been the man who shot the man who had fatally wounded Lord Nelson. It is unclear where the 'Halse' part of his name originated but it is probable that the second 'Rivers' entered his name as a result of a clerical error. Rivers suffered from a stammer that never truly left him, he also had no visual memory but these things did not seem to affect his academic performance. Educated at Tonbridge School, he was set to take his University of Cambridge entrance exam when he was struck down by typhoid fever and missed a year of school. Instead of Cambridge, Rivers studied medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, later developing an interest in psychology. He graduated aged just 22, the youngest person to do so until recent times.

After qualifying, Rivers sought to join the Royal Army Medical Corps but was barred due to ill health. Instead, his love of travelling lead him to serve several terms 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”. Back in England, he accepted a post at St John's College]] at the University of Cambridge (where he was later elected a fellow) and joined the university's expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898, subsequently carrying out extensive study of kinship in Melanesia. Despite his love of adventure and his obvious intellect, Rivers was still an extremely shy young man at this point:

In the Cambridge physiological laboratory he had to lecture to a large elementary class. He was rather nervous about it, and did not like it. This was partly owing to a hesitation of speech, which at times was quite embarrassing when he was speaking without notes. So he wrote out his lectures pretty fully... As a result many of his thoughts are preserved for us which would otherwise be lost
(L.E Shaw, physiologist friend of Rivers and his neighbour at St. John's for many years).

His experiences both at home and abroad increased his interests in the relationship between mind and body, and he played a fundamental role in the establishment of both experimental psychology and social anthropology as academic disciplines in Britain. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1908 and won the Society's gold medal in 1914 (information obtained from Rivers fonds)

In the early 1900s, Rivers' embarked on one of his most famous experiments, carried out with (and on) his close friend Dr Henry Head to study the regeneration of nerve tissue. Incisions were made into Head's arm by Rivers, severing a nerve, and the two men observed the return of sensation over a period of five years. Although Rivers was the investigator in this experiment, he was survived by Head who came to publish their work and is, therefore, given a great deal of the credit that is, perhaps, due to Rivers. Rivers was to work closely with Henry again during the latter part of the war when he was appointed psychologist to the Royal Flying Corps, attached to the Central Hospital in Hampstead.

In 1904, with Professor James Ward and some others, Rivers founded the British Journal of Psychology of which he was at first joint editor. [1]

From 1908 till the outbreak of the late war Dr. Rivers was mainly preoccupied with ethnological and sociological problems. Already he had relinquished his official post as Lecturer in Experimental Psychology in favour of Dr. Charles Samuel Myers, and now held only a lectureship on the physiology of the special senses.[2] By degrees he became more absorbed in anthropological research. But though he was now ethnologist rather than psychologist he always maintained that what was of value in his work was due directly to his training in the psychological laboratory. In the laboratory he had learnt the importance of exact method; in the field he now gained vigor and vitality by his constant contact with the actual daily behaviour of human beings. In 1908 Rivers made his first journey to Melanesia. The material and interests which the voyage gave him occupied practically the whole of his attention until 1914, when his great work entitled "A History of Melanesian Society" was published. In that year he made a second journey to Melanesia, returning to England in March 1915, to find that war had broken out.

World War One

During the war, he worked as a RAMC captain at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he applied techniques of psychoanalysis to British officers suffering from various forms of neurosis brought on by their war experiences.

Rivers, by pursuing a course of humane treatment, had established two principles that would be embraced by American military psychiatrists in the next war. He had demonstrated, first, that men of unquestioned bravery could succumb to overwhelming fear and, second, that the most effective motivation to overcome that fear was something stronger than patriotism, abstract principles, or hatred of the enemy. It was the love of soldiers for one another.

Rivers' methods are often, somewhat unfairly, said to have stemmed from Sigmund Freud however, this is not truly the case. Although he was aware of Freud's theories and methods, he did not necessarily prescribe to them. While he 'admitted', as Myers describes, 'the conflict of social factors with the sexual instincts in certain psychoneuroses' of civilian life, he saw the instinct of self-preservation, and not the sexual instinct, as the driving force behind war neuroses. He, therefore, formed his 'talking cure' not on the basis that soldiers were repressing sexual urges but rather their feelings of fear pertaining to their war experiences. As such, he really is a pioneer in his field- both for his new methods and for the fact that he went against the grain of the beliefs of the time (Shell-Shock wasn't considered a 'real' illness and 'cures' mainly involved electric shocks) and against the grain of the society he too had been brought up in- he didn't advocate the usual 'stiff upper-lip' approach but rather told his patients to express their emotions.

Sassoon came to him in 1917 after publicly protesting against the war and refusing to return to his regiment, but was treated with sympathy and given much leeway until he voluntarily returned to France. For Rivers, there was a considerable dilemma involved in "curing" his patients simply in order that they could be sent back to the Western Front to die. As Sassoon wrote:

O Rivers please take me. And make me
Go back to the war til it break me...

He did not wish to 'break' his patients but at the same time he knew that it was their duty to return to the front and his duty to send them. There is also an implication (given the pun on Rivers' name along with other factors) that Rivers was more to Sassoon that just a friend and, as he called him, 'father confessor', a point that Jean Moorcroft Wilson picks up on in her biography of Sassoon, however Rivers' tight morals would have probably prevented such a relationship from progressing:

Rivers’ uniform was not the only constraint in their relationship. He was almost certainly homosexual by inclination and it must quickly have become clear to him that Sassoon was too. Yet neither is likely to have referred to it, though we know that Sassoon was already finding his sexuality a problem. At the same time, as an experienced psychologist Rivers could reasonably expect Sassoon to experience ‘transference’ and become extremely fond of him. Paul Fussell suggests in The Great War and Modern Memory(ISBN 0195019180) that Rivers became the embodiment of the male ‘dream friend’ who had been the companion of Sassoon’s boyhood fantasies. Sassoon publicly acknowledged that ‘there was never any doubt about my liking [Rivers]. He made me feel safe at once, and seemed to know all about me’.

But Sassoon’s description of the doctor in 'Sherston’s Progress', lingering as it does on Rivers’s warm smile and endearing habits- he often sat, spectacles pushed up on forehead, with his hands clasped around one knee- suggests that it was more than liking he felt. And privately he was rather franker, telling Marsh, whom he knew would understand, that he ‘loved [Rivers] at first sight.’

Not only Sassoon, but his patients as a whole, loved him and his colleague Frederic Bartlett wrote of him

Rivers was intolerant and sympathetic. He was once compared to Moses laying down the law. The comparison was an apt one, and one side of the truth. The other side of him was his sympathy. It was a sort of power of getting into another man's life and treating it as if it were his own. And yet all the time he made you feel that your life was your own to guide, and above everything that you could if you cared make something important out of it.
Rivers published the results of his experimental treatment of patients at Craiglockhart in a The Lancet paper 'On the Repression of War Experience'[4][5] and began to record interesting cases in his book 'Conflict and Dream' which was published a year after his death by his close friend Grafton Elliot Smith[6].

Post War

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.
In those post war years, his personality seemed to change dramatically. The man who had been most at home in his study, the laboratory, or the field now dined out a good deal, had joined clubs, went yachting and appeared to welcome rather than shun opportunities for public speaking. Always having been a voracious reader, he now began reading in philosophy, as he had not done for some years, and also in imaginative literature. Not all of his friends from former years welcomed these changes; some felt that, along with his shyness, his scientific caution and good sense may have deserted him to a degree but most people who saw how happy Rivers had become agreed that the slight alterations to his character were for the better.

Rivers had visited his college frequently during the war although, having resigned his position as lecturer, he held no official post. However, upon his return from the Royal Flying Corps in 1919, the college created a new office for him- 'Praelector of Natural Science Studies'- and he was given a free rein to do as he pleased. As Leonard E. Shore recalled in 1923:

when I asked him if he would undertake that work... his eyes shone with a new light I had not seen before, and he paced his rooms for several minutes full of delight.
He took his new position to be a mandate to get to know every science student and indeed every other student at St. Johns and at other colleges. He would arrange 'At Homes' in his rooms on Sunday evenings, as well as Sunday morning breakfast meetings; he also organised informal discussions and formal lectures (many of which he gave himself) in the College Hall. He formed a group called The Socratics and brought to it some of his most influential friends, including H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Bertrand Russell and Sassoon. Sassoon (Patient B in 'Conflict and Dream'), remained particularly friendly with Rivers and regarded him as a mentor. They shared Socialist sympathies.

Having already been made president of the anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1911, after the war he became president of the Folk Law Society (1921), and the Royal Anthropological Institute (1921-1922). He was also awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester and Cambridge in 1919.

Rivers died of a strangulated hernia in the summer of 1922, shortly after being named as a Labour candidate for the 1922 general election. He had been taken ill suddenly in his rooms at St. John's on the evening of Friday 4th June, having sent his servant home to enjoy the summer festivities. By the time he was found in the morning, it was too late and he died in the Evelyn Nursing Home following an unsuccessful emergency operation. Rivers had an extravagant funeral at St. John's in accordance with his wishes as he was an expert on funeral rites. Sassoon was deeply saddened by the death of his father figure and his loss prompted him to write two poignant poems about the man he had grown to love:


To A Very Wise Man


FIRES in the dark you build; tall quivering flames

In the huge midnight forest of the unknown.

Your soul is full of cities with dead names,

And blind-faced, earth-bound gods of bronze and stone

Whose priests and kings and lust-begotten lords

Watch the procession of their thundering hosts,

Or guard relentless fanes with flickering swords

And wizardry of ghosts.


In a strange house I woke; heard overhead

Hastily-thudding feet and a muffled scream...

(Is death like that?) ... I quaked uncomforted,

Striving to frame to-morrow in a dream

Of woods and sliding pools and cloudless day.

(You know how bees come into a twilight room

From dazzling afternoon, then sail away

Out of the curtained gloom.)


You understand my thoughts; though, when you think,

You’re out beyond the boundaries of my brain.

I’m but a bird at dawn that cries ‘chink, chink’—

A garden-bird that warbles in the rain.

And you’re the flying-man, the speck that steers

A careful course far down the verge of day,

Half-way across the world. Above the years

You soar ... Is death so bad? ... I wish you’d say.

And perhaps most poignant of all...



What voice revisits me this night? What face

To my heart’s room returns?

From the perpetual silence where the grace

Of human sainthood burns

Hastes he once more to harmonise and heal?

I know not. Only I feel

His influence undiminished

And his life’s work, in me and many, unfinished.

O fathering friend and scientist of good,

Who in solitude, one bygone summer’s day,

And in the throes of bodily anguish, passed away

From dream and conflict and research-lit lands

Of ethnological learning, - even as you stood

Selfless and ardent, resolute and gay,

So in this hour, in strange survival stands

Your ghost, whom I am powerless to repay.

Lines omitted from final version of Revisitation

Deep in my morning time he made his mark

And still he comes uncalled to be my guide

In devastated regions

When the brain has lost its bearings in the dark

And broken in it’s body’s pride

In the long campaign to which it had sworn allegiance

The Red Ribbon Dream

In this poem, written by Robert Graves not long after Rivers' death, he touches on the peace and security he felt in Rivers' rooms:

For that was the place where I longed to be

And past all hope where the kind lamp shone.

These were not the first poems to be written about Rivers. The following poem (written anonymously, although there is a reference that indicates that these lines were written by Charles Elliot Fox, missionary and ethnographer friend of Rivers) can be found in the Rivers collection of the Haddon archives at Cambridge:

Anthropological Thoughts

The Doctor took his book in hand

His pen was in his finger

His foot was on a foreign strand-

But there I need not linger.

"Now how," said he, "if I may ask

About your cousin's mother

Would she attempt the simple task

Of speaking of your brother?

Ah yes, just so, but if she were

Your mother's uncle's sister

How would your cousin's sister's aunt

Address her when she kissed her?

Yes that's a point I meant to add

Your nephew's cousin's father

If he an uncle's sister had

(And neither of the two were mad)

Would he respect her rather?

But if your father's cousin's niece

(His brother's cousin's mother)

Were married to your father's son

Would he be called your brother?

Indeed, now this if it be so

Is very interesting

And really should not be I think

The subject of your jesting.

For if your father's mother's son

Were nephew to your mother

I really cannot understand

Why she should call him brother."

Alas, Alas, for just before

The doctor's mind could grip her

A shout of laughter issued from

The Cabin of the Skipper.

Others' Opinions of Rivers

In Sassoon's autobiography (under the guise of 'The Memoirs of George Sherston') Rivers is one of the few characters to retain their original names. There is a whole chapter devoted to Rivers and he is immortalised by Sassoon as a near demi-god who saved his life and his soul. Sassoon wrote:

I very much like to meet Rivers in the next life. It is difficult to believe that such a man as he could be extinguished.

Rivers was much loved and admired, not just by Sassoon. Bartlett wrote of his experiences of Rivers in one of his obituaries, as well as in many other articles (see 'References') as the man had a profound influence on his life:

On June 3 last year I was walking through the grounds of St. John's College, here in Cambridge, when I met Dr. Rivers returning from a stroll. He was full of energy and enthusiasm, and began at once to talk about certain new courses of lectures which he proposed to deliver at the Psychological Laboratory during the present year. On the evening of the next day I heard that he was dangerously ill. As I approached the College on the morning of June 5 I saw the flag at half mast. He had, in fact, died in the early afternoon of the preceding day. Never have I known so deep a gloom settle upon the College as fell upon it at that time. There was hardly a man-young or old-who did not seem to be intimately and personally affected. Rivers knew nearly everybody. As Praelector of Natural Sciences at St. John's he interviewed all the science freshmen when they came first into residence and, in an amazing number of cases, he kept in close touch with them throughout their Cambridge career. Everybody who came into contact with him was stimulated and helped to a degree which those who are acquainted only with his published works can never fully realise... it is of Rivers as a man that we think; of his eager and unconquerable optimism, and of his belief in the possible greatness of all things human. Whatever may be the verdict of the years upon his published works, the influence of his vivid personality will remain for all who knew him as one of the best things that have ever entered their lives.

Other people have also spoken very highly of Rivers' personality, of his pioneering treatments and of the lasting impact he had on their lives. However, it seems that one must differentiate between 'pre-war' Rivers and 'post war' Rivers as he seems to have left very different impressions in these two periods:


In those days he was very reserved in mixed company, and was hampered by a stammer... [in 1897 Rivers addressed the Abernethian Society at Barts.] The occasion was not no unqualified success. He chose 'Fatigue' as his subject, and before he had finished, his title was writ large on the faces of his audience. He had not yet acquired the art of expressing his original ideas in an attractive form... But if among two or three friends his conversation was full of interest and illumination. He was always out to elicit the truth, entirely sincere, and disdainful of mere dialect
(Walter Langdon-Brown on Rivers' early days at St. John's)
I thought at first that he had almost no interest in women. But once I expressed the view that segregation of the sexes in University was a dreadful thing, and that the professed disdainful attitude of undergraduates towards girls was equally deplorable, he surprised me by the candour and warmth of his concurrence. He said the difficulty was to find a way out... He agreed that he himself didn't see enough of women
(Arnold Bennett, a friend of Rivers, on Rivers' relationship with women)

Post War

He did not tell me that I had done my best to justify his belief in me. He merely made me feel that he took it for granted, and now we must go on to something better still. And this was the beginning of the new life toward which he had shown the way…
(Sassoon in Sherston's Progress)
I must never forget Rivers. He is the only man who can save me if I break down again. If I am able to keep going it will be through him
(Sassoon in his diaries)
Even in his death, Sassoon believed, Rivers had helped him: ‘He has awakened in me a passionate consciousness of the significance of life,’ he wrote in his diary the day after hearing the news. ‘In a few hours I have recognised as never before the intensity of life that Rivers communicated to his friends’. He saw him now ‘in all his glory of selfless wisdom and human service, the inevitable effect of death, he supposed, ‘when the living have loved the dead’
(J.M Wilson on Sassoon's opinion)
It was personal friendship with Dr Rivers, admiration for his book, Instinct and the Unconscious, and the encouragement he gave me in my writing... that has made this book take the shape and title it has taken
(Robert Graves on Rivers and his book Poetic Unreason)
When Rivers died... it seemed as though the death of my friends was following me in peacetime as relentlessly as in war
(Robert Graves in his autobiography Good-bye to All That)
I'm sorry to be leaving... certain individuals, although the number I mind about is rather small... Rivers, after all, was the person who mattered most
(Kingsley Martin in a diary entry two months after Rivers' death as he prepared for graduation)
There were enthusiastic psychotherapists before Rivers, but the orthodox profession were inclined to regard them as cranks. But Rivers's position as an academic scientist was unassailable, and his adhesion to this new branch of medicine commanded respect for it
(Langdon-Brown on the influence of Rivers on psychotherapy)
Rivers' influence was due to a very fascinating personality which it is impossible to express in words. I think that which first impressed most of us was his boundless enthusiasm for his work, an enthusiasm he succeeded in instilling in his students... Busy as his many activities kept him, he always seemed to be genuinely glad when we interrupted his work by bringing some problem for discussion... It is remarkable tribute to the sympathy which we intuitively felt for him that none of us hesitated to bring forward his difficulties or express his opinions, for he had an extraordinary way of making us feel that we were taking part in a discussion on a plane of equality with him
(T.G Platten, a student of Rivers)

Rivers' legacy continues even today in the form of The Rivers Centre, which treats patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder using the same famously humane methods as Rivers had.

Published Works

In Fiction

The life of W.H.R. Rivers and his encounter with Sassoon was fictionalised by Pat Barker in the Regeneration Trilogy, a series of three books including Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995). The trilogy was greeted with considerable acclaim, with The Ghost Road being awarded the Booker Prize in the year of its publication. Regeneration was filmed in 1997 with Jonathan Pryce in the role of Rivers.


  1. Bartlett, F.C (1925). James Ward. 1843-1925 [obituary]. American Journal of Psychology 36: 449-453.
  2. Bartlett, F.C (1937). Cambridge, England, 1887-1937. American Journal of Psychology 50: 97-110.
  3. Arthur Anderson. Anxiety and Panic History 1900 — 1930. URL accessed on 2007-01-08.
  4. W. H. Rivers (2 February 1918). The Repression of War Experience. The Lancet. ISSN 0140-6736.
  5. Michael Duffy. Feature Articles: The Repression of War Experience by W. H. Rivers. URL accessed on 2007-01-08.
  6. W.H. Rivers; preface by G. Elliot Smith (1923). Conflict and Dreams, London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.. OCLC 1456588 , ISBN 1417980192.

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