Mar 122019

Today is the birthday (1864) of William Halse Rivers (W.H.R) Rivers, FRCP, FRS, an English anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist, who has two claims to fame: first as an ethnographer and second in treating First World war officers who were suffering from “shell shock” (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Rivers had a quirky and illustrious family background, including an uncle who lost a leg on HMS Victory at the battle of Trafalgar, kin who studied stammering and also anthropology, and rafts of distinguished clergymen. His childhood was also noteworthy. After the age of 5, he had no ability to form visual memories, and, ironically, given the family history, had a pronounced stammer. Rivers was set to follow family tradition and take his University of Cambridge entrance exam, possibly with the aim of studying Classics, but his plans were thwarted when, at the age of 16, he was struck down by typhoid fever and forced to miss his final year of school. Without a scholarship, his family could not afford to send him to Cambridge.

His illness had been a bad one, entailing long convalescence and leaving him with effects which at times severely handicapped him. Whilst recovering from the fever, Rivers had formed a friendship with one of his father’s speech therapy students, a young army surgeon, and through the friendship decided to study medicine and apply for training in the Army Medical Department. He studied at University of London and St Bartholomew’s Hospital. He qualified as a physician in 1886 but was found physically unfit for military service, so, instead, he signed on as a ship’s surgeon, journeying to Japan and North America, and beginning a lifetime of world travel.

On his return to England, Rivers qualified as a specialist in neurology and began to take an interest in the nascent field of psychology. He delivered papers to the Abernethian Society of St. Bart’s on “Delirium and its allied conditions” (1889), “Hysteria” (1891), and “Neurasthenia” (1893). In 1892, Rivers traveled to Jena to expand his knowledge of experimental psychology. Whilst in Jena, Rivers became fluent in German and attended lectures, not only on psychology but on philosophy as well. In his diary 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.”

In 1893 he was offered a teaching post at Cambridge, but he continued to lecture at Bart’s and University College, London. With ill equipped facilities at Cambridge he embarked on studies of sensory perception, especially color vision, and then on the effects of coffee, tea, alcohol, and tobacco on muscular and mental endurance. In the latter case, he was aware that there were psychosomatic effects as well as purely physical ones, and so invented the double blind test (in which neither the tester nor the subject being tested knows whether the substance being taken is an active drug or a control placebo). In 1904 with the assistance of professor James Ward, Rivers founded and subsequently edited the British Journal of Psychology.

In 1898 Alfred Cort Haddon made Rivers first choice to head an expedition to the Torres Straits. Rivers’ first reaction was to decline, but he soon agreed on learning that C.S Myers and William McDougall, two of his best former students, would participate. The other members were Sidney Ray, C.G Seligman, and a young Cambridge graduate named Anthony Wilkin, who was asked to accompany the expedition as photographer.

From Thursday Island, several of the party found passage, soaked by rain and waves, on the deck of a crowded 47-foot ketch. In addition to sea sickness, Rivers had been badly sunburnt on his shins and for many days had been quite ill. On 5th May, in a bad storm nearing their first destination of Murray Island, the ship dragged anchor on the Barrier Reef and the expedition almost met disaster. When the ketch dropped anchor, Rivers and Ray were at first too ill to go ashore. However, the others set up a surgery to treat the native islanders and Rivers, lying in bed next-door tested the patients for color vision. He developed positive feelings for the work and a deep concern for the welfare of Melanesians for the rest of his life.

In the course of his examinations of the visual acuity of the locals, Rivers showed that color blindness did not exist or was very rare, but that the color vision of Papuans was not the same type as that of Europeans; they possessed no word for blue, and applied the same name to the brilliant blue sea or sky as to the deepest black. Rivers also began collecting family histories and constructing genealogical tables. At this point his purpose appears to have been more biological than ethnological since such tables seem to have originated as a means of determining whether certain sensory talents or disabilities were hereditary. However, these simple tables soon took on a new perspective. It was at once evident to Rivers that the names applied to the various forms of blood relationship did not correspond to those used by Europeans, but belonged to what is now known as a ‘classificatory system’ whereby some kin are given terms based on their social relationship, not on blood relationship. This was a revolutionary finding, still of great importance in anthropological kinship studies. The Torres Straits expedition was revolutionary in many other respects as well. For the first time, British anthropology had been removed from its armchair theorizing and placed on a sound empirical basis, providing the model for future anthropologists to follow.

The expedition ended in October 1898 and Rivers returned to England. Subsequently he went to Egypt to run tests on the color vision of Egyptians, but he wanted a demographically small, fairly isolated people, comparable to the island societies of the Torres Strait, where he might be able to get genealogical data on each and every individual. The Todas in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India suited his needs, and he ended up producing a detailed ethnography of them that became a model for subsequent ethnographers.

From 1908 until the outbreak of the First World War  Rivers was mainly preoccupied with ethnological and sociological problems. He relinquished his official post as lecturer in experimental psychology in favor of Charles Samuel Myers, and now held only a lectureship on the physiology of the special senses. By degrees he became more absorbed in anthropological research. But though he was now an ethnologist rather than a psychologist he always maintained that what was of value in his work was due directly to his training in the psychological laboratory. In the laboratory he had learnt the importance of exact method.

During 1907–8 Rivers traveled 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 the year of publication he made a second journey to Melanesia, returning to England in March 1915, to find that war had broken out. When Rivers returned to England in spring 1915, he had trouble at first finding a place for himself in the war effort. He signed up to serve as a civilian physician at the Maghull Military Hospital near Liverpool. Upon his arrival in July 1915, he was appointed as a psychiatrist to treat “insanity” in soldiers, by which was meant working with soldiers who had been diagnosed as suffering from any of a wide range of symptoms, which were collectively referred to as “shell shock.” These soldiers were known to demonstrate symptoms such as temporary blindness, memory loss, paralysis, and uncontrollable crying. As such, by the time Rivers was assigned to Maghull War Hospital, it was known as the “centre for abnormal psychology,” and many of its physicians were employing techniques such as dream interpretation, psychoanalysis and hypnosis to treat shell shock, also known as “war neuroses.” After about a year of service at Maghull War Hospital, Rivers was appointed a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. There, Rivers treated officers who had been diagnosed with “shell shock,” and he also began formulating his theory regarding the origin and treatment of the war neuroses.

Rivers, following Freud in practice but not in theoretical underpinnings, formed his own version of the “talking cure” which was primarily based on catharsis: the idea that bringing repressed memories into the light of consciousness rids memories and thoughts of their power. As a result, Rivers spent most of his days talking with the officers at Craiglockhart, guiding them through a process Rivers referred to as autogonosis. Rivers’ autogonosis consisted of two parts. The first part included “re-education,” or educating the patient about the basics of psychology and physiology. River’s method also consisted of helping a soldier comprehend that the illness he was experiencing was neither strange nor permanent.

Rivers’ approach to treating the war neuroses made him a pioneer in his day. While he was not the first to advocate humane treatment methods for the war neuroses, he was one of the few to do so in a time when there was much debate over the cause and thus the “correct” treatment for shell shock. Rivers encouraged his patients to express their emotions in a time when society encouraged men to keep a “stiff upper-lip.” River’s method, and his deep concern for every individual he treated, made him famous among his clients. Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves wrote highly of him during this time.

Rivers had visited his Cambridge college frequently during the war although, having resigned his position as lecturer, he held no official post. However, upon his return from the Royal Air Force in 1919, the college created a new office for him – “Praelector of Natural Science Studies” – and he was given a free rein to do as he pleased. He formed a group called The Socratics and brought to it some of his most influential friends, including H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Bertrand Russell and Sassoon. Sassoon (Patient B in Conflict and Dream), remained particularly friendly with Rivers and regarded him as a mentor. Having already been made president of the anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1911, after the war he became president of The Folklore Society (1920), and the Royal Anthropological Institute (1921–1922). He was also awarded honorary degrees from the universities of Manchester, St. Andrews and Cambridge in 1919.

Rivers died of a strangulated hernia in the summer of 1922, shortly after being named as a Labour candidate for the 1922 general election. He had been taken ill suddenly in his rooms at St John’s on the evening of Friday 3rd June, having sent his servant home to enjoy the summer festivities. By the time he was found in the morning, it was too late yet he was selfless to the last. There is a document granting approval for the diploma in anthropology to be awarded as of Easter term, 1922, to an undergraduate student from India. It is signed by Haddon and Rivers dated 4th June 1922. At the bottom is a notation in Haddon’s handwriting:

Dr. Rivers signed the report on this examination on the morning of the day he died. It was his last official act. A.C.H

Rivers signed the papers as he lay dying in the Evelyn Nursing Home following an unsuccessful emergency operation. He had an extravagant funeral at St. John’s in accordance with his wishes as he was an expert on funeral rites and his cremated remains were interred in the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in a grave with a large stone cross. Sassoon was deeply saddened by his death and collapsed at his funeral. His loss prompted him to write two poems: “To A Very Wise Man” and “Revisitation.”

Here is a recipe from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait called nummus. It is very similar to Peruvian ceviche.

Thursday Island Nummus


500 gm white fish fillets, thinly sliced
white vinegar
½ cup of fresh lime or lemon juice
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp raw sugar
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
5 tbsp fresh ginger, freshly chopped
1 -2 fresh chile peppers, chopped (or to taste)
1 large onion, peeled and sliced


Place the fish in a mixing bowl and pour about half a cup of vinegar over it. Turn the fish around in the vinegar with your hands, pushing and kneading. After a few minutes add half the lime of lemon juice and continue to knead for another minute. Add the salt and continue to knead for two more minutes. Add sugar, chile, garlic, ginger, onion, and mix well.

Chill for several hours or overnight.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm

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