William Halse Rivers Rivers was an unusual talent who made significant contributions both to psychology and anthropology, although his reputation has survived best in anthropology, particularly in the field of social organization.
Rivers was the eldest of four children born to Henry, an Anglican churchman and speech therapist, and Elizabeth Rivers. His education was interrupted by ill-health and a serious stammer, and when typhoid fever prevented him sitting for his exam for Cambridge, he switched to medicine. In 1886, Rivers graduated bachelor of medicine from the University of London, the youngest graduate from Bartholomew’s Hospital for almost a century. After service as a ship’s surgeon, Rivers gained his MD from London in 1888 and was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. In 1893 he was appointed Lecturer in Psychological and Experimental Psychology at Cambridge.
In 1898, Rivers took part in an expedition to an island group in the Torres Straits, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. He was invited to take part by virtue of his role as a prominent psychologist. After refusing the offer, Rivers eventually decided to go, kindling his lifelong interest in anthropology in the process. He made a second trip in 1901 and in 1902 went to Melanesia, and also studied the Todas of southwestern India. His book The Todas (1906), the result of that expedition, is widely regarded as a classic.
Through all this, Rivers retained his interest in psychology. Between 1903 and 1907, Rivers and a colleague, Henry Head, took part in a protracted experiment on the peripheral sensory mechanism. The experiment involved cutting two cutaneous nerves in Head’s left forearm and mapping the process toward the full recovery of skin sensitivity. While the conclusions of the study have risen and fallen in esteem, the value of the experiment and the conditions under which it was performed have had a long influence. A feature of Rivers’s career was his attention to the requirements of methodology.
In 1904, Rivers cooperated with his friend C. S. Myers and the venerable James Ward to found the British Journal of Psychology. This was an important milestone for the development of independent British psychology.
In November 1907, Rivers took an extended trip to the Solomon Islands, later extended to Melanesia. The trip lasted about a year. Soon after his return, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, along with Bertrand Russell.
When Rivers began The History of Melanesian Society (1914), he was thinking about social development in evolutionary terms, but while writing that work, he came to stress the important role even small groups of immigrants could have, changes which could in all likelihood quickly look like evolutionary changes. This led him to adopt the diffusionist views championed by his Cambridge colleague, the Australian-born ethnologist Grafton Elliot Smith. Rivers regarded The History of Melanesian Society as his magnum opus, but it has not had the influence of other works like Kinship and Social Organization (1914). Many regard Rivers’s main contribution to be the study of social organization.
In July 1915, soon after his return from a third expedition to Australasia, Rivers returned to medicine. After a year at a military hospital in Lancashire as a civilian physician, he was commissioned in 1917 into the Royal Army Medical Corps with the rank of captain and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital, near Edinburgh in Scotland. While there, Rivers had responsibility for counseling Siegfried Sassoon. The two became close friends, even though Rivers was ambivalent about his role in coaxing Sassoon back to the front. For his part, Sassoon never forgot Rivers’s kindness and fatherly attention to his welfare. They remained in close touch for the remainder of Rivers’s life.
After the war, Rivers returned to Cambridge where he concentrated on his work in psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and ethnology, stressing the interrelationships among them. He served as first president of the medical section of the newly formed British Psychoanalytical Society. In opposition to the mainstream psychoanalysis, he emphasized the role of fear as a primary psychological motivation. He preferred to speak of “the unwitting” to the unconscious, and disagreed with Freud and Jung over the alleged universality of symbols. Rivers’s academic respectability helped psychoanalysis acquire an audience in Britain.
Rivers died unexpectedly on June 4, 1922 from a strangulated hernia. At the time of his death he was the Labor Party candidate for the University of London.
- Slobodin, R. (1978). W. H. R. Rivers. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Stocking, G. W. (1995). After Tylor: British social anthropology, 1888-1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.