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Rivers, William Halse Riversfree

  • Michael Bevan
  •  and Jeremy MacClancy

William Halse Rivers Rivers (1864–1922)

by unknown photographer

Rivers, William Halse Rivers (1864–1922), psychologist and anthropologist, was born on 12 March 1864 at Constitution Hill, Chatham, Kent, the eldest in the family of two sons and two daughters of Henry Frederick Rivers (1830–1911), curate, and his wife, Elizabeth Hunt. Family tradition claims that he was a descendant of William Rivers, the midshipman who shot the sniper who fatally wounded Lord Nelson. Rivers was educated at Tonbridge School, the University of London, where he matriculated in 1882, and at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. When he received the MB and MRCS in 1886 he was the youngest medical graduate in the history of the hospital. Rivers travelled to Japan and North America in 1887 as a ship's surgeon, and thereafter he regularly undertook sea voyages as a means of overcoming poor health. He became MD in 1888 and FRCP in 1899.

Rivers was house surgeon at Chichester Infirmary (1887–9) and house physician at St Bartholomew's (1889–90). In 1891 he joined the Neurological Society and became house physician at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic. Here he met John Hughlings Jackson, Michael Foster, Henry Head, and Charles S. Sherrington. He also worked with Victor Horsley on investigations into the existence and nature of electrical currents in the mammalian brain, conducted at University College, London (UCL). Rivers resigned from the National Hospital in 1892 and travelled to Jena where he worked with Ewald Hering. During his visit he wrote in his diary that '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' (Slobodin, 13). On his return he was appointed clinical assistant at Bethlem Royal Hospital, and the next year assisted G. H. Savage on his lectures on mental diseases at Guy's Hospital. About this time he also began to lecture on experimental psychology at UCL. By 1893 Rivers was teaching physiology at Cambridge and spent that summer working in Heidelberg with Emil Kräpelin on measuring the effects of fatigue. Rivers became university lecturer in psychology at Cambridge in 1897, and in 1902 he was elected a fellow of St John's College. In 1907 he was appointed to the newly established lectureship of physiology and experimental psychology and made director of the university's new psychology laboratory, the first of its kind in Great Britain.

Rivers was interested in the relation between mind and body. His most famous experiment was conducted between 1903 and 1907 in collaboration with Henry Head. Head severed two of the cutaneous nerves in his left forearm and sutured the ends together. He and Rivers then spent four years mapping the recovery of sensory perception in Head's arm. The experiment reinforced beliefs that ‘civilized’ man retains underneath an evolutionary primitive nervous system. His slightly later work on the influence of alcohol and caffeine on fatigue was also one of the first experiments to rely on a double-blind procedure.

In 1898 Rivers had joined the Cambridge anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait. He performed some of the first experiments in cross-cultural psychology and also developed the genealogical method as a key to the study of social organization. He then spent several months during 1901–2 among the Toda people of south-west India. The resulting monograph, The Todas (1906), set new standards of ethnological accuracy. In the following years he began to propound diffusionism, the doctrine that cultural traits were not independently invented but carried from one area to another. During 1907–8 he travelled to the Solomon Islands, and other areas of Melanesia and Polynesia. His two-volume History of Melanesian Society (1914) presented a diffusionist thesis for the development of culture in the south-west Pacific.

In 1913 Rivers delivered three lectures at the London School of Economics which were later published as Kinship and Social Organization (1915). He visited the New Hebrides during 1914 and early 1915, returning to England during the spring of that year. In July he joined the Maghull Military Hospital, Lancashire, as a physician. Here Rivers, who was already familiar with the work of Freud and Jung, was introduced into a society in which the interpretation of dreams and the discussion of mental conflicts formed the staple subjects of conversation. In 1916 Rivers was commissioned as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps and in October he was posted to Craiglockhart Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, where he played a key role in the development of techniques to heal shell-shocked soldiers. Because of this experience he came to champion the cause of psychiatry and of a high-minded version of socialism. Rivers became psychologist at the Royal Flying Corps Central Hospital at Hampstead in 1917. All through the war he continued to work on method and theory in psychotherapy and wrote the entry on psycho-therapeutics in volume 10 of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (1918). Between 1918 and 1919 he was also on the staff of the Empire Hospital for Officers, Vincent Square, London. His post-war writings drew his previous interests together, as he developed ideas on the nature of instinct, the interpretation of dreams, and the relationship of myth and dream. In 1922 he became the Labour candidate for the University of London constituency, but he died before the election.

Rivers played a fundamental role in the establishment of both experimental psychology and social anthropology as academic disciplines in Great Britain. His pre-war writings were crucial for steering anthropology away from interpretations based on evolution to ones based on the functioning structure of the contemporary society. His turn to diffusionism, however, was generally seen as a misguided shift towards a method of interpretation that relied too heavily on conjecture.

Rivers was a shy, reticent man hampered by a stammer. He led a rather monastic, reclusive life and displayed a complete disregard for personal gain. In the years after the war, however, he became much more outgoing and sociable, and he welcomed opportunities for public speaking. The officers under his care, who included Siegfried Sassoon, remembered him as a patient and deeply sympathetic man. Rivers is portrayed in Sassoon's The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (1937) and in Pat Barker's trilogy: Regeneration (1992, released as a film in 1997), The Eye in the Door (1994), and The Ghost Road (1996).

In 1908 Rivers was made a fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded the society's gold medal in 1915. He was president of the anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1911, of the Folklore Society in 1921, and of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1921–2. The universities of Manchester, St Andrews, and Cambridge awarded him honorary degrees in 1919. Rivers died on 4 June 1922 in the Evelyn Nursing Home, Cambridge, following an emergency operation on an intestinal obstruction. His ashes were interred in St Giles's cemetery, Cambridge, following a funeral service in St John's College chapel. He was unmarried. Thirty years later Siegfried Sassoon was to write 'I should like to meet Rivers in the “next world”. It is difficult to believe a man such as he could be extinguished' (Slobodin, 62).



  • CUL, corresp. and notes
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Simbo–English vocabulary compiled by Rivers and others
  • UCL, papers


Wealth at Death

£2653 15s. 0d.: probate, 25 Aug 1922, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

W. Munk, , 2 vols. (1861) 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1878)
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]