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William Halse Rivers Rivers (1864 - 1922)

Dr W H R Rivers Dr W H R Rivers

William Halse Rivers Rivers was born in 1864, in Luton, near Chatham, Kent. He was the eldest of four children of Henry and Elizabeth Rivers. His father was a Church of England priest and also a speech therapist, who treated, amongst others Lewis Carroll for a stammering problem. William went to a prepatory school in Brighton an then, in 1877 (when he was 13) to Tonbridge, a well-known public school not far from the family home. Although gifted with an enquiring and excellent mind, William was no highbrow; he was actually quite good at games until he fell ill aged 16. He did however, have one severe problem - he stammered. In later years he once told Arnold Bennett that the best thing to do with a stammer was "forget it", and although William was never free if his stammer, it did diminish over the years.

Rivers was a first class student with a scientific bent, and as his time at Tonbridge drew to a close, he prepared to sit the scholarship entrance examination at Cambridge. However, shortly before hand he fell seriously ill with what was probably typhoid fever which forced him to miss his final year of school and the exam. Instead he decided that he would study medicine and apply for training in the Army Medical Department.

In 1882 he matriculated at the University of London, entering Bartholomew's Hospital, one of three teaching hospitals of the University at this time. In 1886 he received his Bachelor of Medicine degree from the University of London, at 22 he was the youngest medical graduate in the long history of Barts until quite recently.

In 1887 Rivers travelled to Japan and North America as a ship's surgeon. He once travelled back from the West Indies to England in company with Bernard Shaw, spending many hours each day talking.

In 1888 Rivers gained the distinction of M.D. (London) and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. By that time he had given up his idea of joining the Army Medical Dept. (which in 1898 was combined with the Army Hospital Corps to form the Royal Army Medical Corps). Later in the year he obtained a residency in Chichester, enjoying both the town and the company of his colleagues; but when he was offered a residency at Barts in 1889 he did not hesitate to return to London. Reports and papers given at this time show his growing interest in neurology and psychiatry.

In 1892 Rivers resigned his post at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic (taken up in the previous year) to go to Jena and attend lectures. At this time Germany was, in many respects, the leading scientific nation, and was attractive to younger workers in the fields of neurophysiology and psychology. Rivers stayed in Jena for four months, towards the end of his stay there he decided to work in psychology as much as possible once he returned to England.

In 1893 Rivers was appointed Lecturer in Psychological and Experimental Psychology at Cambridge. Prior to taking up this appointment, Rivers spent the summer of 1893 at Heidelberg, working with Emil Krapelin on measuring the effects of fatigue.

Rivers arrived at St John's College, Cambridge in October 1892 and found himself admitted to the University from which his boyhood illness had barred him.

In 1898 Rivers participated in the Cambridge University anthropological expedition to the Torres Straits, and in 1901-02 he subsequently returned to work among the Todas of India and in Melanesia.

Back in Cambridge in 1903 he began a neurological experiment with his friend and colleague Henry Head, which was not completed until December 1907. The experiment was to study nerve regeneration and in it some of the cutaneous nerves in Head's arm were cut, and they carefully recorded the sensory changes which took place during the healing process.

Rivers was attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Australia when the Great War broke out. He spent the rest of 1914 and the early part of 1915 in the northern New Hebrides. He also visited New Zealand where he lectured and also consulted with leading authorities on Polynesia before returning to England in the spring of 1915.

In July 1915 Rivers joined the staff of Mughill Military Hospital in Lancashire as a civilian physician. In 1916 he was commissioned a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and in October of that year Rivers was transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh.

It was at Craiglockhart, of course, that Rivers "treated" Sassoon, officially for shell-shock although he is quoted in Sherston's Progress diagnosing Sassoon's "condition" as "an anti-war complex". Rivers's "treatment" of this condition involved long conversations three times a week and a gentle encouragement to return to the War. As an officer in the R.A.M.C. Rivers was obliged to prepare his patients for their inevitable return to the Front, and although Sassoon was not a genuine shell-shock victim, Rivers nevertheless regarded it as his bounden duty to talk Sassoon into returning to the front.

Rivers' conversations with Sassoon caused him some conflict, which he related in Chapter 10 of Conflict and Dream. The conflict became apparent through his "Pacifist" dream, in which Rivers' concern for German colleagues and German science, and the beginning of his shift from support in a war to the finish towards a desire for a negotiated victory. Sassoon figures in his analysis of the dream as Patient B. A reading of Henri Barbusse's anti-war novel, Under Fire and of the English Review, on the recommendation of B, had deeply impressed Rivers. Conversation that evening with B had also served to stimulate the conflict between the two positions in regard to the continuance of the war.

Sassoon's father, Alfred had been disowned by his family on his marriage to Sassoon's mother, Theresa , thereby cutting Sassoon off from his father's side of the family. Sassoon was made fatherless at the age of nine by Alfred's death from TB, and in Rivers he found a father figure. In Sherston's Progress Sassoon refers to Rivers as his "father-confessor".

Sassoon did return to the War and Rivers left Craiglockhart towards the end of 1917. After the War he returned to Cambridge where he concentrated on his work on psychology, psychiatry, sociology and ethnology. He remained in contact with Sassoon and was a frequent visitor at Weirleigh. He died unexpectedly on June 4, 1922 from a strangulated hernia, a twisted bowel.

Sassoon never forgot the support Rivers gave him or the belief in him that Rivers held, and Rivers's influence on Sassoon is seen in two poems in particular that Sassoon wrote - Revisitation, written after Rivers's death, and Repression of War Experience written in July 1917. The latter is named after a paper of the same title which Rivers presented before the Section of Psychiatry of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1917.

For a more detailed biography of Rivers, including extracts from his writings see Richard Slobodin's W. H. R. Rivers (Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1997).

© Michèle Fry, 1998.

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