W.H.R. Rivers

Sometimes now known as 'The Psychiatrist of The Ghost Road' W.H.R.Rivers has a formidable reputation and holds a pivotal place in the development of neurophysiology, psychiatry/ psychology and anthropology - but he is probably most widely known for his wartime association with Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and is featured in Pat Barker's 1995 Booker prize winning novel The Ghost Road. L.R. Reeve* some of whose encounters with famous people we are posting, actually never met him but saw him lecture and, sadly, missed a chance to meet him '…after he had addressed an audience at Cambridge he invited the London contingent to his rooms at St John's College for coffee and discussion. Some of us, I among them, wanted to return by the next train and reluctantly refused. What a chance I missed!' Nevertheless he has a good account of him:


Dr Rivers (1864 - 1922) was one of those rare men who call forth the best generous impulses of anyone with whom they come in contact. No extreme selfish extrovert, no criminal, nobody I should think, could resist his unconscious charm; and he himself, like Harold Nicolson, couldn't hate anybody.
  We read a very warm appreciation from Siegfried Sassoon in The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. It seems that Sassoon, suffering from the harsh nervous strains of World War I, was admitted to a hospital where, within a few minutes of his entrance, he met Captain Rivers, RAMC. Immediately he took a liking to his physician, who made his patient feel relaxed in a very short time. Rivers, the senior by about twenty years, talked with Sassoon as an intellectual equal, although the latter very modestly affirms that he was inferior to the former, and I like to read of the time when Rivers was asked wether he thought that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock. The answer was a decided negative. Then the patient asked what was the disability. Rivers said that Sassoon appeared to be suffering from an anti-war complex. Doctor and patient laughed at the diagnosis. After his experience in hospital I believe that Sassoon again returned to the trenches and won at least one more decoration.
  As a clubman Rivers fitted in very nicely among his new acquaintances. Frank Swinnerton, in one of his fascinating reminiscences, says that at the Reform Club, London, the great Psychopathologist frequently sat smilingly listening to the wit and raillery one finds in any good club, and he made a good clubman. In addition, Kingsley Martin informs us in his memoirs that when he was at Cambridge the great scholar would sometimes send him a note of invitation to join him at lunch. He informs us too that Rivers had joined the Labour Party and wanted to be in the House of Commons to psychoanalyse Lloyd George. His ambition was not realised because his associates, after many sustained, forceful objections, persuaded him not to enter the political arena. I often ask myself, by the way, if it is true that Rivers, although a psychoanalyst, was never himself analysed. If it is true does that fact make him a less successful mental healer? I should not think so; yet the elderly, but very shrewd, lady who informed me of this fact was very scornful of the possibility; and I have to admit she was a woman of great learning. Another query, of little importance, keeps returning to me. On a certain voyage Bernard Shaw and Dr Rivers paced the promenade deck together for several days. I often ponder whether that voyage decided Shaw to join the British Psychological Society.
  As a secretary of the medical section of the British Psychological Society used to say, the personality of the doctor himself is the most important factor in curing nervous disorders, and in my view more curative progress would be made to-day if more veteran psychiatrists were available. So many of the younger practitioners seem to take a delight in shocking audiences rather than examine closely instances of mental disturbance. If they are trying to obtain a cheap advertisement they certainly succeed, but the publicity often creates a situation very different very different from their intention. The term 'trick cyclists' is not altogether unwarranted.
  Had I been patient about forty years ago and asked to choose a psychiatrist my first choice would have been F.C.Flugel, because I knew him better than the Cambridge don; my next selection might have been Rivers or Crichton Miller. Emmanuel Miller also had a good reputation; but Flugel and I attended many meetings, frequently the same gatherings in our pursuit of mental problems, and sometimes knew few of the others present at certain lectures and symposiums.
  A quick look at Rivers in his earlier days may help us to understand his career which influenced so many of his pupils. He was educated at Tonbridge and St Bartholomew's Hospital: a school and a hospital of envied traditions which enabled a brilliant intellect fully to assimilate the high purpose of education, together with the inherent possibilities of medicine; and it is intriguing me to calculate that he was probably less than thirty years of age when he became a lecturer in physiological and experimental psychology at Cambridge (my informant says the year was 1867; it must have been 1887 or '97). To achieve such an important appointment at an early age is very impressive from any angle. When the two subjects under his direction were separated in 1907 he became lecturer in the physiology of the senses. Again an impressive appointment; but even more a cause for wonder was that during these years he encouraged the Cambridge school of experimental psychology – an innovation I believe to be the first of its kind in England, which has evolved into an instrument known to be of untold value to hundreds of aspiring psychologists and sociologists. My evidence about the experimental centre is, I am afraid, very little, for it is many years since I visited it and I can see only a blur of various designs and experimental appliances of varying sizes, but I do remember a room so constructed that all external sound is eliminated. My few minutes sojourn alone in the chamber was a curious experience; and I am sure it must be one of the most useful experiments in the building. A few years ago I met one of the staff from the school. She assured me that the sound-proof room was still very useful. I believe C.S.Myers was the first principal, who inturn was succeeded by F.C.Bartlett.
  In 1898 Rivers and his two assistants Myers and MacDougall, (mentioned on other matters), both of whom eventually became world famous, joined A.C.Haddon on an anthropological expedition to Torres Straits. They achieved such valuable results that Rivers returned an enthusiastic anthropologist and later returned to his earlier haunts, then wrote a couple of books on Melanisian Society. Also, as already implied, during World War I he arrived at new conclusions from his experiments as a psychopathologist and wrote 'Instinct and the Unconscious' and as regards Freud's theories it interests me to find that Rivers was not in full agreement with some of the Austrian analyst's conclusions. On this subject I simply assert my belief that as time passes criticisms will accumulate.
  Dr Rivers must have been a most attractive companion. I can assert that he was an attractive lecturer; and I should have been intrigued to see him in his Cambridge setting; but I declined the only opportunity. After he had addressed an audience at Cambridge he invited the London contingent to his rooms at St John's College for coffee and discussion. Some of us, I among them, wanted to return by the next train and reluctantly refused. What a chance I missed!
  Few well-known men ave had three of their books first published after death. W.H.R.Rivers wrote 'Psychology and Politics', 'Medicine, Magic and Religion', and 'Social Organisations' which were published after 1922. A remarkable man. There will never be quite an exact replica. Those who have learned some of the lessons of the universe at Tonbridge and St Barts must beam with joy when he is mentioned.

among  the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5  - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and  L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.

L R Reeve had in a long life met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He  presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers,  H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that  many I have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions  unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."

Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association  and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent 6 typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes...

One thought on “W.H.R. Rivers

  1. Roger Allen

    Rivers was never a psychoanalyst, although he used a form of "talking cure". I wouldn't be surprised if this derived from his anthropological experiences.His method with patients like Sassoon seem closer to contemporary cognitive behavioural therapy- helping patients to think out their own dilemmas and make their own solutions to them, though- especially with Sassoon- he may also have made an ideal substitute father/elder brother. Their genuine friendship and close social relations probably helped there too.


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