Rear view of St John's College, Cambridge. William Rivers, w h r Rivers,,

Cambridge 1893-1914: General Life

Given Rivers’ abiding fondness for St Johns College, Cambridge, one could be forgiven for assuming his welcome there was unanimously warm. It was not – although the hostility was aimed at the position he was offered, not the man himself. Some in the University declared the appointment a ‘Ridiculous superfluity’ (Bartlett F:‘Cambridge, England 1887-1937’) and objected to the study of psychophysics as they were wary of offending the religious. It was only within the latter stages of Rivers career that these became universally accepted and established subjects on the curriculum due, according to some experts, Slobodin included, in no small manner to the efforts of the Dr himself.

Whatever his initial experience of the college, Rivers soon launched into life there and spent much of the coming 29 years within its walls. Ill health still dogged him, with exhaustion and depression, and his quarters had to be moved twice due to the stairs proving too much but he seems to have been busy and popular. Friend, former pupil and colleague, Fred Bartlett recalled his mentor ‘ still reticent in mixed company’ but joining in lively discussions with those he knew at the dining table, ‘like a soda siphon going off’, stammer forgotten in the enthusiasm of conveying a point. The dr’s dedication, perseverance and integrity soon won him the respect of those who met him. L.E. Shore recalls “he was always out to elicit the truth, entirely sincere, and disdainful of mere dialect” Similarly this was noted in his professional life and ‘a formidable researcher,’ as Alfred Cort Haddon explained, “the keynote of Rivers was thoroughness. Keenness of thought and precision marked all his work.” His work was distinguished by a devotion to the demands of method very rare at the time in the and, too often unaccredited overlooked, it was of immense import as it formed the foundation of all that came later (Paul Whittle: A Founding Father Worth Remembering)

Life at this stage was certainly busy. In addition to the new engagement, Rivers was still employed to teach by University College and Guy’s Hospital in London. As his reputation increased, he was given more responsibilities; both University College and Cambridge University opened psychology labs in 1897 and Rivers was offered charge, becoming the Director of the first two psychology labs in the United Kingdom. (For more detail please see forthcoming article: Rivers; Cambridge: Psychology)

There is no formal record of how quickly the students of the university took to their new lecturer but, considering the accounts of those who came later (Bartlett, Myers, McDougall to name a few) it seems fair to suggest that he was well-liked and respected by the majority. Even comments upon Rivers’ ‘laboured style’ of lecturing, due to reading exclusively from notes because that reduced his stammer are swiftly followed by assurances as to his prowess as a field investigator. It is not uncommon to read that a student in search of help or advice would find Rivers’ door ‘always open’ (Slobodin R: Rivers; (Revised Edition) 1997) and the kettle boiling away by the fire just in case of such a visit. Rivers seldom drank tea or coffee himself but tea, accompanied by absent-mindedly stale slices of Madeira cake became somewhat legendary as did his readiness to give others his time despite his own workload or exhaustion.

It is a measure of how well-regarded Rivers was that in 1919, upon his return from treating traumatised soldiers during the Great War (1914-18) the College created a new position especially for him. As “Praelector of Natural Science Studies”[, L. E Shore wrote, he was allowed to interpret his role as he wished and took it upon himself to get to know as many students of the university as well as possible. He organised visiting speakers, formed a group called the ‘Socratics’, hosted Sunday breakfast sessions and informal discussions. These were well attended and, upon a sadder note, so was Rivers’ funeral after he died suddenly on June 4th 1922; reputedly thousand of students and colleagues were present to pay respects to a ‘Ridiculous Superfluity.’


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