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History of Psychology Centre

'Restraint, power and fineness' - remembering W.H.R. Rivers

04 June 2022 | by History of Psychology Centre

The 4th June 2022 marks the 100th anniversary since the death of one of the original BPS founders, W.H.R. Rivers.

Rivers is portrayed in the work of Pat Barker’s Regeneration.  He is calm, authoritative but not authoritarian, empathetic in comparison to the other doctors and gentle with his patients.

An early ambition of Rivers was to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. However, he was awarded an M.D. (London) in 1888 and also elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians.  His first published work of note was in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports which included, ‘A Case of Spasm of the Muscles of the Neck Causing Protrusion of the Head’ in 1888.

Rivers developed an interest in the nervous system and the mind, in sensory phenomena and mental states.  During his time in Jena, Germany, (1892) he wrote, ‘I have during the last three weeks come to the conclusion that I should go in for insanity when I return to England and work as much as possible at psychology’. 

Upon his return to England Rivers was engaged at St. John’s College, Cambridge.  In addition, he had teaching commitments at Guy’s Hospital and also University College, London.  Whilst at Cambridge Rivers would ensure that psychology became a distinct academic discipline.

The Torres Straits ethnography expedition of 1898 led to some of River’s best work and most important achievements – his ‘genealogical method’.  His work amongst the Todas people in the Nilgiri Hills, India produced the classic The Todas (1906). 

He conducted expeditions to Melanesia and Polynesia in 1907.  An expedition in 1914 to Australia and New Zealand meant that Rivers was absent from England during the opening salvoes of the First World War.  Eager to contribute to war service he joined the staff of Maghull Military Hospital in July 1915 as a psychiatrist.  Here Rivers treated men who suffered from ‘war neuroses’ or ‘shell shock’. Both Rivers and his contemporary, Charles Myers, who coined the term were later to categorise it as misleading.  
In 1915 Rivers was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Society.  But it was his work during the war – where he found himself.  He became an effective therapist to the men suffering for what was in all likelihood Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During 1916 Rivers was commissioned as a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  He was transferred to Craiglockhart Hospital.  Here he treated Captain Siegfried Sassoon.  Sassoon liked Rivers and started to feel better under his care, saying, ‘He [Rivers] made me feel safe at once and seemed to know all about me’ (quoted in Slobodin).  The regime at Craiglockhart was one of sports, gardening, hobbies, language classes, botany, a debating society and importantly talking therapies.  

By the end of 1917 Rivers was been appointed psychologist to the Royal Flying Corps.  His work, Wind-Up (1920), must be one of the earliest contributions to aviation psychology.  

Rivers scholarship on psychotherapy was published in ‘Psycho-therapies’ in Volume 10 of The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (Rivers 1918).  He advocated for psycho-education so that the wounded men could better understand themselves and direct their ‘thoughts into more healthy channels’. A colleague of Rivers was to write, ‘the orthodox medical reactionaries have been smashed and psychology has been born’ (quoted in Slobodin).  

In 1919 St. John’s College appointed Rivers as Praelector of Natural Science Studies. Also in 1919 he became the first president of the newly formed British Psycho-analytical Society.  By the time of his death in 1922 Rivers was president of the Royal Anthropological Society and the British Association.  

Rivers’ ashes are interred at St. Giles’ Cemetery, Cambridge at quiet resting place.  On the 100th anniversary of his death he deserves to be remembered for his ethnographical work but also for his compassionate and innovatory treatment of men with tortured minds.  

Myers, C. (1941) Shell Shock.
Rivers, W.H.R. (1906) The Todas.
Rivers WHR. (1920) ‘Wind-Up’. 
Slobodin, R. (1997) Rivers.
Moorcroft Wilson, J. (2002) Siegfried Sassoon The Making of a War Poet 1886-1918.
The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ‘Psycho-therapies’, 1918, (Vol 10).
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Reports, ‘A Case of Spasm of the Muscles of the Neck Causing Protrusion of the Head’ 1888, (Vol. 24; 249-51).
The Life and Work of WHR Rivers - https://whrrivers.com/


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