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Biography & Psychology VI: W.H.R. Rivers (1864 - 1922)

02 May 2012

W.H.R. Rivers is probably most famous today for having been the doctor of poet Siegfried Sassoon, when he was treated for “shell-shock” at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917. Pat Barker’s well-known novel, Regeneration, depicts Rivers as a hero of wartime psychiatric treatment, pioneering psychological approaches to mind over the punitive electro-shock methods of Lewis Yealland. What is less well-known is that Rivers’ career in psychiatry began at Bethlem. Born in 1864, William H.R. Rivers trained in medicine, subsequently deciding to “go in for insanity” (as he put it in his diary), following which he gained a position as clinical assistant at Bethlem Hospital in October 1892.1 These six-month residential (but unpaid) posts were open to fully qualified medical practitioners with a special interest in the field. Although absent from Bethlem over the Christmas period, when he was struck down by an outbreak of scarlet fever in the wards, in March 1893 it was noted that both Rivers and his fellow assistant, Maurice Craig, were “anxious to continue in residence … for another 6 months.” In the event, Rivers only stayed at Bethlem for another two, asking to resign on May 24 when he was offered a Lectureship in Psychology at Cambridge. Yet he continued to lecture at Guy’s Hospital with George Savage, whom he had presumably met while working at Bethlem (Savage, a former superintendent, regularly brought parties of students to the wards for instruction as well as visiting the hospital socially).

Rivers’ interests remained wide, and his career encompassed a variety of elements that may seem contradictory to modern eyes, used to specialism. It is often assumed by historians that neurological approaches to mind required a determinist, “medical materialist” approach, which privileged somatic medicine over psychology and objective physical symptoms of illness above subjective ones. Yet it doesn’t appear that Rivers (or many of his contemporaries) perceived any such conflict between physical and mental medicine. In his early career he combined neurological research with Henry Head (the “nerve regeneration” experiments after which Pat Barker’s book is named) and social anthropology (in the Torres Straits study of 1898, and his own research into the Todas a few years later) with medical and experimental psychology.

(to be continued...)

[1] Rivers quoted in Richard Slobodin, W.H.R. Rivers: Pioneer Anthropologist, Psychiatrist of "The Ghost Road", (Stroud: Sutton, 1997) , p. 13

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