W. H. R. Rivers: The Recalcitrant Subject and The Disembodied Mind

Stephen Courtney

On the 8 January 1897, the neurologist and psychological theorist William Rivers visited the library of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and underwent a series of bodily measurements. The card retained by the Philosophical Society records his straight nose, inconspicuous cheek-bones, straight dark hair, and slight frame. Rivers was described by contemporaries as having a delicate constitution, the consequence of a childhood fever. Despite this, his assessment revealed unremarkable figures for breathing power, grip-strength, and ‘pull’.[1] Whilst these measurements tell us very little about Rivers the man, they do situate him in a vividly physical way within the social and intellectual context of late 19th-century Cambridge. In fact, it is the physicality of this information that provokes the most searching questions about his personal and professional beliefs.


Anthropometric Data Cards, CPS 12/1/12, reproduced by permission of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (C)

That Rivers would be involved in the anthropometric programme is not surprising; biometric data was a significant part of the expanding fields of anthropology and psychology. However, for much of his career, Rivers advocated the efficacy of disembodied models of the individual, both in medical treatment and research. He occupied a difficult theoretical middle-ground, between the embodied schemas represented by medical psychiatry and the abstract modelling of psycho-analysis. Taking the anthropometric measurements as its start point, this entry will consider the tension between materialist and disembodied conceptions of the individual throughout the career of William Rivers.


Anthropometric Data Cards CPS 12/1/12, reproduced by permission of the Cambridge Philosophical Society (C)

Rivers’ life and career provide an insight into a period of paradigmatic change. The questions provoked by this intellectual shift spanned numerous disciplines, temporarily aligning the research aims of biology, anthropology, and medicine. Rivers navigated this shifting ground by skilfully moving between physical and psychological concepts. However, despite a medical background, his practical and explanatory resources related predominately to the mental rather than the physiological, focusing on the discovery and management of thought processes. This is most clearly reflected in his work as a psychiatric practitioner during the First World War. Whilst his explanations for ‘Shell Shock’ drew from biology, evolutionary anthropology, and theories of the unconscious, Rivers’ method of treatment focused on the prevention of conscious repression.[2]


A Ridiculous Superfluity:

The influence of cognitive factors over physiological phenomena was represented strongly in Rivers’ early life. His maternal grandfather was the speech therapist Thomas Hunt, whose practice was continued by Rivers’ uncle, James Hunt, author of Stammering and Stuttering, Their Nature and Treatment.[3] Rivers himself stammered, a condition that made public speaking and lecturing difficult.[4] Alongside this, Rivers experienced an unusual cognitive impairment, in which his ability to visualise past experiences was inhibited.[5] He was, however, able to generate mental images whilst dreaming.[6]

Rivers intended to study for an undergraduate degree at the university at Cambridge. However, in the last year of his preparatory education, he developed a serious illness and was unable to sit the entrance exam. Instead, he attended the University of London as a medical student, where he matriculated in 1882. In 1887 he became house surgeon at Chichester Infirmary, and in 1889 he moved to St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Whilst at St Bartholomew’s, Rivers was the house physician to Dr Samuel Gee. This was perhaps his first significant experience of the conflict that could exist between materialist biology and cognitive analysis. Gee espoused a materialist conception of the mind, as is recalled in a later memoir by a colleague, Walter Langdon-Brown:

Those of us who had the privilege of serving under that great clinician, Gee, were conscious of his indifference towards, if not actual dislike of the psychological aspects of medicine. It may have been a reaction against this which led some of us subsequently to become interested in those aspects, though as far as I know, only Rivers and C. S. Myers ultimately devoted themselves entirely to them.[7]

Despite the influence of Gee, Rivers’ interest in psychological illness increased during this period. He presented papers to the hospital’s discussion group, the Abernethian Society, on subjects such as delirium, hysteria, and neurasthenia. During the first of these, delivered on 28 February 1888, Rivers concluded with a consideration of the philosophical approach to mental illness. The summary of his talk, published in the Society’s proceedings, reported: ‘The wide separation at present existing between mental and bodily diseases was condemned, and it was urged that more attention should be paid to the mental symptoms of general diseases.’[8] The materialist disposition of many late 19th-century physicians found its most extreme incarnation in the asylum practitioner Henry Maudsley. In a review of Maudsley’s The Pathology of Mind, Rivers expressed his frustration at the theoretical intransigence of his fellow psychiatrists:

There is … a definite doctrine running through the whole work which, advanced by so distinguished an authority as Dr Maudsley, may do much to retard the study of insanity in this country. Dr Maudsley endeavours at every opportunity to persuade his readers to disregard the psychological aspect of mental disease and to look solely at its material aspect as brain disorganisation.[9]

In 1893, Rivers was offered the opportunity to lecture at Cambridge University on sensory perception, and, in 1897, he was appointed to the new lectureship in experimental psychology. The establishment of this position was the result of the initiative of Michael Foster, a Professor of Physiology who had been agitating for improved facilities for psychological research.[10] However, the movement had encountered significant resistance from within the university, and the office designated for psychological research was a barely adequate room in the Cambridge University Physiology Department. In a memoir of his time at the University, the American psychologist Frederic Bartlett records early opposition to the allocation of resources for psychological research, and the scepticism of senior members of the university towards the new science:

How many times have I heard Rivers, spectacles waving in the air, his face lit by his transforming smile, tell how, in Senatorial discussion, an ancient orator described him as a “Ridiculous Superfluity”![11]


Towards the Psychological

In 1898 the Irish zoologist and biological researcher Alfred Haddon, who provided lectures at the University of Cambridge Anatomy School, contacted Rivers to offer him a position on a planned expedition to the Torres Strait.[12]  Haddon had visited the region in 1888, collecting marine animals for analysis and display in London’s Royal College of Science and the British Museum.[13] However, upon resuming his academic duties at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, Haddon was moved to explore anthropological research. Accordingly, he resigned the chair of zoology and moved to Cambridge. Behind Haddon’s interest in anthropology was the concern that social and ethnological characteristics of isolated communities might be lost through increased interaction with the outside world. His substantial publication The Study of Man, published in 1898, made this motivation clear: ‘Now is the time to record. An infinitude has been irrevocably lost, a very great deal is now rapidly disappearing.’[14]

A major factor in Rivers’ decision to join the expedition was the presence of Charles Myers, a former student of his Cambridge University lectures. Between the two researchers, experiments were planned on the aural and visual faculties of the Torres Strat islanders. The expedition set off in March 1898, remaining in the area between April and October. Work was conducted mainly on the Murray and Mabuiag islands, although surrounding islands were incorporated in certain areas of research.[15] The expedition applied many of the anthropometric instruments and measures used by the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Alfred Haddon’s conception of the anthropological subject was similar to Francis Galton’s anthropometric subject. In his The Study of Man, Haddon justified the value of measurement in anthropological enquiries, mirroring Galton’s earlier rationalisations: ‘It is often important that the physical fitness of people should be tested in order to see how they stand in relation to other people, and to discover certain physical imperfections.’[16] Galton was a significant influence on Haddon’s work, and the anthropometric project of the Cambridge Philosophical Society was specifically identified as a methodological blueprint:

For the last ten years there has been an anthropometrical laboratory in Cambridge, during which time a very large number of students have been physically tested, and as the great bulk of the men belong to the same social grade we have a very valuable series of statistics concerning what may be called the professional and gentle classes…[17]

The value of these statistics was significantly overstated, with Haddon claiming they represented definitive and revealing proof of correlations between physical characteristics and performance in Cambridge examinations.[18]

By contrast with Haddon’s simple biometric approach, Rivers was concerned with the measurement of sensory responses. This work was conducted in a house on Murray Island:

We had taken out with us the equipment of a small psychological laboratory, and the disused missionary house in which we lived was fortunately large enough to enable us to fit up the more complicated apparatus, especially that for reaction-times, in one room, while other parts of the house and verandah were used for different purposes.[19]

He performed tests on islanders’ vision, producing data that challenged the suggestion that indigenous peoples had superior eyesight to Europeans. Differences in visual perception, however, were acknowledged, and related to circumstantial differences.[20]

Rivers found evidence that significant perceptual structures, such as the names and categories for colours, were specific to the Torres Straits islanders.[21] These differences in perceptual categories were the substance of Rivers’ most significant findings, which related to the islanders’ conception of family relationships. Seeking to identify inherited factors in conditions such as colour-blindness, Rivers began collecting family histories and constructing genealogical tables. However, rather than demonstrating the relationship of inheritance and sight, the investigation highlighted the islanders’ alternative classificatory and linguistic formulations of kinship. Rather than relating to biological factors, familial terms were used to imply social roles: ‘The system of kinship is of the kind known as “classificatory,” and none of the terms have exact English equivalents.’[22] Intriguingly, this episode in Rivers’ career saw a physiological investigation side-lined by more exciting conclusions relating to the interrelationship between physical and conceptual structures.

As with his contributions to the Abernethian Society, Rivers’ approach to anthropology focused on cognitive differences. This interpretation of anthropology was described in his contribution to the 1917 volume, Science and the Nation, which criticised previous practitioners and described the value of qualitative research:

It is a widespread popular idea that the chief tasks of the anthropologist are the measurements of heads and the collection of curious or beautiful objects for museums. It is because these have been his main occupation in the past and are believed by so many to be his main business still that the practical value of anthropology is so little recognised. In recent years, however, the whole movement of interest, especially in our own country, has been away from the physical and material towards the psychological and social aspects of the life of Mankind.[23]

In 1909, Rivers resigned his Cambridge lectureship, which was taken up by Charles Myers. He made a final trip to Melanesia following this, and returned in March 1915 to very different circumstances.



In March 1915, Rivers returned to Britain following a fieldwork trip to Melanesia. In July he joined a large intake of practitioners entering service at the Maghull Military Hospital, where he began work as a psychiatrist. His patients were largely recovering servicemen, with conditions collectively referred to as ‘Shell Shock’. This broad term, which Rivers frequently criticised, included symptoms such as sensory impairment, paralysis, disordered memory, and a loss of bodily control. Under the guidance of a young medical superintendent, Dr. Richard Rows, practitioners at Maghull employed a range of psychoanalytical techniques and hypnosis to alleviate nervous symptoms.[24] Significantly, the treatment regimens applied by these practitioners addressed patients in psychological, rather than merely physiological, terms.[25]

The pre-war conflict between materialist and disembodied conceptions of the mind can be seen in the alternative treatment strategies adopted by different psychiatrists in war hospitals. Whilst Rivers combined the insights from his neurological work with Freudian models of repression and the unconscious, alternative treatment strategies involved punitive regimes and the active management of the subject’s body.[26] At the end of the war, Rivers contributed a summative article to the journal Science on the effect the conflict would have on approaches to psychiatry. He repeatedly referenced the role of ‘purely mental factors’ in producing the symptoms of war-neurosis:

As the war has progressed the physical conception of war-neurosis has been gradually replaced by one according to which the vast majority of cases depend on a process of causation in which the factors are essentially mental.[27]

Following a year of medical practice and research at Maghull, Rivers was appointed a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital.[28] He practised at Craiglockhart between 1916 and late 1917. During this period, he provided treatment for a number of high profile casualties, including the war poet Siegfried Sassoon.[29] Finally, Rivers was transferred to a Royal Flying Corps hospital in Hampstead, London, where he practised for the remainder of the war.

It was as a result of his work in war hospitals that Rivers began to seriously engage with Freud’s work on dream analysis and psychotherapy.[30] Whilst remaining unconvinced by some of the specifics of Freud’s work, particularly its sexual focus and the exclusive location of trauma in childhood, the principles of repression and the unconscious became integral to his response to stress related diseases.[31] These foundational tenets of psychoanalysis were incorporated within a more general model of war neurosis, which was outlined in an address delivered to the Royal Society of Medicine in December 1917. Rivers suggested that a form of cognitive therapy be adopted, involving a carefully managed acknowledgement of wartime experiences:

Moreover, we must not be content merely to advise our patients to give up repression; we must help them by every means in our power to put this advice into practice. We must show them how to overcome the difficulties which are put in their way by enfeebled volition and by the distortion of experience when it has long been seen exclusively from some one point of view.[32]

Following the end of the war, Rivers published a comprehensive text incorporating war-related neurosis within a cognitive model of psychological medicine. This ambitious monograph, Instinct and the Unconscious, highlighted the resistance of the British medical establishment to cognitive schemas of mental illness:

In accordance with the general materialistic tendency of medicine the first stage of this branch of the medical history of the war was to ascribe the psycho-neuroses of warfare to the concussions of shell-explosion…it soon became clear, however, that the great majority of the functional nervous disorders of warfare are not traumatic in the strict sense, but occur in pronounced forms either in the complete absence of any physical shock, or after exposure to shell-explosions of a kind very unlikely to have caused physical injury.[33]

Rivers continued his analysis, highlighting the need for medical intervention in diseases related to mental faculties:

Once it is recognised that the essential causes of the psycho-neuroses of warfare are mental, and not physical, it becomes the task of the physician to discover the exact nature of the mental processes involved, and the mechanisms by which these processes are so disordered as to produce the vast diversity of forms in which the morbid state appears.[34]

This assertion, that the remit of the physician be extended to include the cognitive factors involved in nervous diseases, was a unification of two ideas that dominated Rivers’ career. On the one hand, the pronouncement reflected the vocational medical training Rivers had received at the University of London, whilst on the other, it affirmed the existence and importance of a disembodied mind.



In the years after the war, British society incorporated tens of thousands of ex-servicemen for whom the debilitating effects of combat stress were manifestly present and yet not physically identifiable.[35] The structures that Rivers used to analyse cases of war trauma have entered the collective consciousness as a result of these cases. However, well before the war, Rivers was part of a group of researchers whose abstract conception of the human mind challenged both medical and scientific schemas. For this reason, the anthropometric profile produced for William Rivers provides an intriguing historical source. The measurements provide a physical picture of the man who would, within twenty years, call into question the exclusively physical schemas encoded in medical science.


I thank the CPS for giving access to, and permitting me to reproduce, this material.

In addition, I am grateful to the archive team at St Bartholomew’s Hospital for access to the hospital’s historical material.


[1] L. E. Shore, ‘W. H. R. Rivers’, The Eagle (1922), 2-12.

[2] W. H. R. Rivers, ‘An Address on the Repression of War Experience’, The Lancet, 2 February 1918, pp. 173-177; Parliamentary Papers, XII.759, ‘Army. Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell-Shock”’, 1922, pp. 55-58; W. H. R. Rivers, Instinct and the Unconscious (Cambridge, 1920).

[3] John Forrester and Laura Cameron, Freud in Cambridge (Cambridge, 2017), Ch. 3, ‘W. H. R. Rivers, The English Freud,’ pp. 57-99; Richard Slobodin, W. H. R. Rivers: Pioneer Anthropologist, Psychiatrist of The Ghost Road (Stroud, 1997), Part I. ‘Life’, pp. 1-87.

[4] Forrester and Cameron, op. cit. (3), 57-99.

[5] Rivers, op. cit. (2), Chapter 3, ‘Suppression’, pp. 17-22.

[6] Forrester and Cameron, op. cit. (3), 57-99.

[7] Walter Langdon-Brown, ‘“To a Very Wise Man”’, St Bartholomew’s Hospital Journal 44 (1936-37), p. 29.

[8] St Bartholomew’s Hospital Archives, London, SBHB/SA/13/11, ‘February 28’, Proceedings of the Abernethian Society (1889), pp. 31-30.

[9] W. Rivers, ‘Review. The Pathology of Mind. A Study of its Distempers, Deformities and Disorders. by Henry Maudsley’, Mind 4 (1895), pp. 400-403.

[10] John Forrester, ‘1919: Psychology and Psychoanalysis, Cambridge and London – Myers, Jones and Maccurdy’, Psychoanalysis and History 10 (2008) 37-94.

[11] Frederic Bartlett, ‘Cambridge, England: 1887-1937’, The American Journal of Psychology 50 (1937), 102.

[12] Anita Herle, ‘Introduction’, Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 21 (1999), 1-8; Henrika Kuklick, ‘Personal Equations: Reflections on the History of Fieldwork, with Special Reference to Sociocultural Anthropology’, Isis 102 (2011), 1-33; T. H. Pear, ‘Some Early Relations Between English Ethnologists and Psychologists’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 90 (1960), 227-237.

[13] Herle, op. cit. (13), pp. 1-9; Kuklick, op. cit. (13), pp. 1-33.

[14] Alfred Haddon, The Study of Man (London, 1898), p. xx.

[15] Anita Herle and Sandra Rouse, eds. Cambridge and the Torres Strait (Cambridge, 1898), p. 3.

[16] Haddon, op. cit. (14), p. 6.

[17] Haddon, op. cit. (14), p. 10.

[18] Haddon, op. cit. (14), pp. 10-12. This investigation was specifically targeted for criticism by Charles Myers, who was present on the Torres Straits expedition.

[19] W. Rivers, Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, Vol. 2 (Cambridge, 1901), pp. 1-7.

[20] W. Rivers, op. cit. (19), pp. 12-47.

[21] W. Rivers, op. cit. (19), pp. 48-96.

[22] W. Rivers, ‘Kinship’, in Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits, Vol. 5 (Cambridge, 1901), pp. 129-152.

[23] W. Rivers, ‘The Government of Subject Peoples’, in A. Seward, ed. Science and the Nation (Cambridge, 1917), 302-328.

[24] Forrester and Cameron, op. cit. (3), Ch. 3, pp. 57-99; Ted Bogacz, ‘War Neurosis and Cultural Change in England, 1914-22: The Work of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into Shell-Shock’, Journal of Contemporary History 24 (1989), 227-256; Edgar Jones, ‘Shell Shock at Maghull and the Maudsley: Models of Psychological Medicine in the UK’, Journal of the History of Medicine 65 (2010), 368-395.

[25] Jones, op. cit. (24), pp. 368-395.

[26] A notorious example of this is Lewis Yealland, Resident Medical Officer at the Queen Square Hospital: Peter Leese, Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Basingstoke, 2002); Bogacz, op. cit. 24, pp. 227-256.

[27] W. Rivers, ‘Psychiatry and the War’, Science, 18 April 1919, 367-9.

[28] Slobodin, op. cit. (3), pp. 1-87.

[29] Tracey Loughran, Shell Shock and Medical Culture in First World War Britain (Cambridge, 2016).

[30] Forrester and Cameron, op. cit. (3), Ch. 3, pp. 57-99.

[31] Forrester and Cameron, op. cit. (3), Ch. 3, pp. 57-99.

[32] W. Rivers, ‘An Address on the Repression of War Experience’, The Lancet, 2 February 1918, pp. 173-177.

[33] Rivers, op. cit. (2), p. 2.

[34] Rivers, op. cit. (2), pp. 2-3

[35] The parliamentary report recorded that in the years following the armistice, 65000 ex-servicemen were receiving disability pensions for neurasthenia. Parliamentary Papers, XII.759, ‘Army. Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell-Shock”’, 1922, p. 189.