Tag Archives: patient b

To A Very Wise Man

It is perhaps in other people’s writings that we encounter the true Rivers ‘the man’ as opposed to ‘the scientist’, where his modesty does not prevent anything other than his professional character to shine through. The words of Frederick Bartlett, the reports by Arthur Hocart recounting the time they spent researching the lives of Solomons Islands natives, the descriptions of Rivers time at Craiglockhart by both Sassoon and Barker are just a few examples.

To a Very Wise Man

FIRES in the dark you build; tall quivering flames
In the huge midnight forest of the unknown.
Your soul is full of cities with dead names,
And blind-faced, earth-bound gods of bronze and stone
Whose priests and kings and lust-begotten lords          5
Watch the procession of their thundering hosts,
Or guard relentless fanes with flickering swords
And wizardry of ghosts.
In a strange house I woke; heard overhead
Hastily-thudding feet and a muffled scream…   10
(Is death like that?) … I quaked uncomforted,
Striving to frame to-morrow in a dream
Of woods and sliding pools and cloudless day.
(You know how bees come into a twilight room
From dazzling afternoon, then sail away   15
Out of the curtained gloom.)
You understand my thoughts; though, when you think,
You’re out beyond the boundaries of my brain.
I’m but a bird at dawn that cries ‘chink, chink’—
A garden-bird that warbles in the rain.   20
And you’re the flying-man, the speck that steers
A careful course far down the verge of day,
Half-way across the world. Above the years
You soar … Is death so bad? … I wish you’d say.

Siegfried Sassoon, inspired by his ‘Father Confessor’


    Paul Whittle, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge

Barker’s portrayal of Rivers emerges as one of the major literary portraits of the great physician, a role-model as relevant at the end of the century as at its beginning.

The Lancet Publishing Group

-“Without Rivers what came after 1922 would not have been possible.”

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

William Rivers, one of the earliest scholars to focus on, and indeed help to establish, Social Anthropology, held a Fellowship at St John’s. A major contributor also to the development of psychiatry,

University of Cambridge (St John’s) Website

“One of the most fascinating men of his generation…Part of his appeal lay in an extraordinary intellect, mixed with a very real interest in his fellow man”

From the rear cover of ‘Medicine, Magic and Religion’ (see biblio)

“He was a very humane, a very compassionate person who was tormented really by the suffering he saw…”

Pat Barker  (see http://web.archive.org/web/20010426151512/http://www.lolapress.org/reus_e.htm )

“The restraint, power and fineness of Rivers’ mind make it impossible to be patient with critics”

Robert Graves

“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.”

Times Literary Supplement

 “Always, as we read, we feel we are in close contact with a mind that is actually thinking…”


  1. Arnold Middlebrook, of Downsway, Kirk Ella, East Yorks, called in the College Library in July 1963. He was treated for shell-shock 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.”

 N.C. Buck (1963

‘Rivers was intolerant and sympathetic He was once compared to Moses laying down the law. The comparison was an apt one, and one side of the truth. The other side of him was his sympathy. There is really no word for this. Sympathy is not good enough. It was a sort of power of getting into another man’s life and treating it as if it were his own. And yet all the time he made you feel that your life was your own to guide, and above everything else that you could if you cared make something important out of it

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.

A Lectureship was established in Experimental Psychology and the Physiology of the Senses, and Dr. W. H. R. Rivers was asked to accept it. To the immense good fortune of Cambridge he did. There was still opposition, but it was more vocal than serious. 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”! Here, then, I must pause again and try to write my own story of W. H. R. Rivers. It is baffling task. There were two Rivers, the pre-War and the post-War; the pre-War Rivers whose ways of life and thought, whose hopes and fears not many people knew; the post-War Rivers who was here there and everywhere, the heart and spirit of all manner of schemes, writing and working in a feverish hurry, and who, with no official position in the University whatsoever, exercised, perhaps, a more profound influence upon many phases of undergraduate life than any other single person has ever done. I came up to St. John’s College in the University of Cambridge. It had a good psychological record. It was the college of G. F. Stout, of William McDougall, and, in my own day, of W. H. R. Rivers. I went to it, in fact, largely because Rivers was there

Never have I known so deep a gloom settle upon the College [St. John’s, Cambridge] as fell upon it at that time. There was hardly a man – young or old – who did not seem to be intimately and personally affected. Rivers knew nearly everybody.

Fred Bartlett

Rivers made remarkable contributions to psychology, neurology, anthropology and psychotherapy. A century later, he is much better remembered by anthropologists than by psychologists. But he was very much a psychologist throughout his life, and his life and work have a lot to teach us. Hence my title.

Paul Whittle

He was once compared to Moses laying down the law. The comparison was an apt one, and one side of the truth. The other side of him was his sympathy.

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, 1937)

 F Bartlett

pivotal in instituting the study of experimental psychology

(1914). Rivers devoted the rest of his life to medical psychology. His Instinct and the Unconscious (1920) did much to encourage a sympathetic British attitude toward psychoanalytic theory


Rivers’ discrimination of concepts has a scientific clarity that is commonly lacking in anthropological writing. Although the problems of descent, succession, and inheritance are not so simple as Rivers supposed, he at least perceived the nature of problems that many later writers have ignored

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3045001071.html      Edmund R. Leach

Dakowski argues that…, Rivers’ emphasis on systematic field research and his refinements of methods of inquiry significantly strengthened the research basis of the emerging discipline. Rivers’ methodological contributions emphasized the problems of bias and the ways that systematic methods helped to lessen bias.


His students, especially Radcliffe-Brown, and the other young fieldworkers who followed him including Malinowski, disguised the contribution Rivers made-out of what Harold Bloom has called in the poetic tradition, the anxiety of influence-and they did so so effectively that Rivers has largely disappeared from the way anthropologists think about the history of the discipline and its current challenges.

Arthur Kleinman Professor Harvard University

(To) William Halse

Long ago, in the shadows

of the long cold night … You became a friend,

Calm, and willing to talk, Willing to listen

Willing to teach

You sustained me, treated me

brought me to equal share

of that great intellect,

Of that great understanding Of all that’s You

I cannot repay, nor can words

offer to explain

what you gave to me

in those bleak times

but you restored to me

A self that’s mine

First published under name Tommy Atkins on Facebook, 2005

It seems, whatever one thinks of William Rivers, or from whichever of his traits and disciplines a person approaches him,  he is a man  difficult to quantify in mere words. I leave you thus, to draw your own conclusions.


New Rivers Chapter

The next instalment of Rivers The Blog is now available

Rivers – at Craiglockhart

The next chapter of the Rivers bio is ready. what does everyone think so far? I’m not too sure about this section’s quality but I don’t know how to improve it. Constructive suggestions very welcome…