W. H. R. Rivers

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W. H. R. Rivers (March 12, 1864 - 4 June 1922) was a British anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist best known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers during World War I. Many people have spoken very highly of Rivers' personality, of his pioneering treatments and of the lasting impact he had on their lives. However, it seems that one must differentiate between 'pre-war' Rivers and 'post war' Rivers as he seems to have left very different impressions in these two periods.

Quotes about Rivers

Pre-war
  • At this time he was very much of a recluse, almost entirely wrapped up in his sociological and anthropological studies, and sailing off whenever he could to his beloved Melanesian islands and people. He warned me rigorously against getting entangled in any College or University affairs: “they will take your mind off research”.Sometimes he asked me to tea and produced little slices of dry bread and butter and even drier madeira cake. I do not remember anyone else at any of these tea parties.
    • Bartlett, 1967, p157, W.H.R. Rivers, The Eagle, (St John’s College magazine), 156-160
  • In those days he was very reserved in mixed company, and was hampered by a stammer... [in 1897 Rivers addressed the Abernethian Society at Barts.] The occasion was not no unqualified success. He chose 'Fatigue' as his subject, and before he had finished, his title was writ large on the faces of his audience. He had not yet acquired the art of expressing his original ideas in an attractive form... But if among two or three friends his conversation was full of interest and illumination. He was always out to elicit the truth, entirely sincere, and disdainful of mere dialect.
    • Walter Langdon-Brown on Rivers' early days at St. John's Reference (Langdon-Brown, W. (1936) "To a very wise man", St Bartholomew's Hospital Journal, Nov 1936, 29-30)
  • I thought at first that he had almost no interest in women. But once I expressed the view that segregation of the sexes in University was a dreadful thing, and that the professed disdainful attitude of undergraduates towards girls was equally deplorable, he surprised me by the candour and warmth of his concurrence. He said the difficulty was to find a way out... He agreed that he himself didn't see enough of women
    • Arnold Bennett, a friend of Rivers, on Rivers' relationship with women as quoted in Rivers' biography
Post-war
  • At the High Table he talked more than he had ever done in the old days and about far more topics. He was enormously active. He lectured often both in and out of Cambridge. In those days you never quite knew where Rivers would break out next. He came rushing round to my room one morning early, only partially dressed, and he put on my desk a piece of paper written over in his queer, almost illegible handwriting and said “Look I want you to sign this.” It recorded that when he woke up that morning he had a strong impression that a distant friend of his was trying to communicate with him. Sometimes when I dropped in to see him I would find him sitting still, apparently doing nothing, and looking desperately tired. He would take off his steel rimmed spectacles and pass his hand over his eyes. And then he would jump up and be active again. He wrote, talked, read, dashed about, took on new things and kept on old ones all in a terrific hurry as if he thought he wouldn’t have time to finish.
    • Bartlett, 1967, pp158-9, W.H.R. Rivers, The Eagle, (St John’s College magazine), 156-160
  • He was a great man. We met him and had no doubt of it. He needed contact to communicate his greatness, which lived in him, and would not wholly go into any form other than himself.
    • Bartlett F.C.
  • It is no good. I cannot say what I want. What I want to say will not go down in ink and be made public
    • Bartlett F.C. (1922) Obituary notice of WHR Rivers, The Eagle, (St John’s College magazine), 2-14
  • Rivers’ unexpected and premature death in 1922 shocked and upset all his friends and associates. Shining through all the reminiscences of Rivers is how deeply he was loved, valued and admired by those who knew him. Some hints of why still come through in his writings, which are modest, highly sane, compassionate, yet undogmatic and, when called for, outspoken and original.
    • Richards, G. (1998) Getting a result: the expedition's psychological research 1989-1913, In Herle, A., and Rouse, S. (Eds) (1998) Cambridge and the Torres Strait: Centenary Essays on the 1898 Expedition, Cambridge Richards 2001
  • He did not tell me that I had done my best to justify his belief in me. He merely made me feel that he took it for granted, and now we must go on to something better still. And this was the beginning of the new life toward which he had shown the way
  • I must never forget Rivers. He is the only man who can save me if I break down again. If I am able to keep going it will be through him
  • Even in his death, Sassoon believed, Rivers had helped him: ‘He has awakened in me a passionate consciousness of the significance of life,’ he wrote in his diary the day after hearing the news. ‘In a few hours I have recognised as never before the intensity of life that Rivers communicated to his friends’. He saw him now ‘in all his glory of selfless wisdom and human service, the inevitable effect of death, he supposed, ‘when the living have loved the dead’
    • J.M Wilson on Sassoon's opinion
  • It was personal friendship with Dr Rivers, admiration for his book, Instinct and the Unconscious, and the encouragement he gave me in my writing... that has made this book take the shape and title it has taken
  • When Rivers died... it seemed as though the death of my friends was following me in peacetime as relentlessly as in war
  • The restraint, power and fineness of Rivers’ mind make it impossible to be patient with critics
  • I'm sorry to be leaving... certain individuals, although the number I mind about is rather small... Rivers, after all, was the person who mattered most
    • Kingsley Martin in a diary entry two months after Rivers' death as he prepared for graduation Father Figures: a First Volume of Autobiography, 1897-1931, Hutchinson (1966)
  • There were enthusiastic psychotherapists before Rivers, but the orthodox profession were inclined to regard them as cranks. But Rivers's position as an academic scientist was unassailable, and his adhesion to this new branch of medicine commanded respect for it
    • Langdon-Brown on the influence of Rivers on psychotherapy. (1936) "To a very wise man", St Bartholomew's Hospital Journal, Nov 1936, 29-30
  • Rivers' influence was due to a very fascinating personality which it is impossible to express in words. I think that which first impressed most of us was his boundless enthusiasm for his work, an enthusiasm he succeeded in instilling in his students... Busy as his many activities kept him, he always seemed to be genuinely glad when we interrupted his work by bringing some problem for discussion... It is remarkable tribute to the sympathy which we intuitively felt for him that none of us hesitated to bring forward his difficulties or express his opinions, for he had an extraordinary way of making us feel that we were taking part in a discussion on a plane of equality with him
    • T.G Platten, a student of Rivers
  • Culture and Personality studies are divided into two parts,'those which came before Rivers, and those which came after.'He represents a landmark in the sense that if you came behind Rivers there is one kind of science, and if you came after, there is another.
    • Sir Edmund Leach
  • Despite the distinction and variety of his scientific achievements, only those personally acquainted with him can fully appreciate the causes of that profound respect with which he was regarded.
    • The Times Literary Supplement
  • W. Arnold Middlebrook, of Downsway, Kirk Ella, East Yorks, called in the College Library in July 1963. He was treated for shellshock by W.H.R.R. at Craiglockhart Hospital in Sept. 1917. He visited the Library on, at least, two occasions. Each time he asked to see the portrait of Rivers. He would stand, at the salute, and thank Rivers for all he did for him. On his last visit he was obviously in poor health and finished with the words “goodbye my friend I don’t suppose we shall ever meet again."
    • Buck, N.C. (1963) Note in the St John’s College archive