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 by Paul Whittle

Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge


A hundred years ago tomorrow, on 7 December 1897, the Cambridge University Reporter announced the appointment of William Halse Rivers Rivers as University Lecturer in Physiological and Experimental Psychology. During the next twenty-five years, until his early death in 1922, 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.

Of course, in reviving the memory of Rivers in 1997, I am hardly alone. There is, you may have noticed, a positive Riversfest in progress. For me it started with Elaine Showalter’s chapter on him in The Female Malady (1985). Then from 1991-5 there was Pat Barker’s trilogy of novels, the third of which won the Booker prize, in which Rivers is a central character. Two weeks ago a film of the first of those novels, Regeneration, was released, with Jonathan Pryce as Rivers. The main biography of Rivers, by Richard Slobodin, has recently been re-issued as a paperback. Next year there will be a book, an exhibition and a conference to mark the centenary of the Torres Strait expedition, in which Rivers was one of the most important participants. And while preparing this talk, I have lost count of the number of times people have said, ‘Oh, Rivers, yes, you should talk to x, he (or she) is extremely interested in Rivers.’ It has again become true that ‘you never quite know where Rivers will break out next’, to adapt a phrase from one of his contemporaries.

Yet in psychology Rivers was pretty firmly forgotten. I looked through the indices of seven standard fat psychology textbooks from the 1930s to the 1960s, mostly American, but not all: only one mentioned Rivers. Even when his famous expt with Henry Head was mentioned, it was attributed only to Head, ignoring the original account of which Rivers was first author. And only two weeks ago my own graduate student, when I mentioned giving a talk on Rivers, said ‘Oh yes. Who is Rivers?’

In this talk I shall try to set Rivers’s life in the context of the history of psychology, and particularly of Cambridge psychology, as befits a local centenary. My talk will be mainly an amateur history lesson. Towards the end I’ll venture some reflections, with a century of hindsight, on what Rivers’s life and work can mean for us today. I originally expected that about half of it would be reflections, but I found, as other people have, that talks about Rivers tend to burst their banks, like the man. He captures you in so many ways, even to the extent of infiltrating bad puns into your prose. (That one has his authority in Conflict & Dream.) He did so much in so many fields and at such a fascinating transitional time that interesting stories and reflections branch off from every bit of his life and work. Both intellectual stories within particular disciplines, and grander narratives situating him in twentieth century culture and history. I shall try at least to gesture towards them.

One general reflection at the start, on a theme which kept recurring. Rivers and his contemporaries were in the business of founding disciplines. Now, academic disciplines both facilitate and impede. They facilitate the work done within them, but put up boundaries around themselves which impede communication. It is remarkable how many of the people I shall talk about refused to stay within the disciplines they were creating. They demonstrated it with their lives, Rivers in particular, and often were quite explicit about how irksome they found the restrictions. I came to feel it was appropriate that the oldest meaning of ‘discipline’ in English, according to the OED, is ‘chastisement’.

Before getting on to dates and events, I want to try to give you some feeling for Rivers the man, as seen by his contemporaries.

Rivers remembered by his contemporaries

People who knew Rivers fell under his spell. It’s easy to believe, because those who study him now find the same thing happening to them. You can feel it in Pat Barker’s novels. To show you what I mean, consider this note made by Norman Buck, the Assistant Librarian of Rivers’s old college, St Johns. I found it hard at first to read with dry eyes. And if I start stammering, as Rivers did, put it down to an excess of identification.

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 ocasions. 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)

That is forty-six years after he was Rivers’s patient. Put it together with the moving poems written to Rivers by Siegfried Sassoon, another of his WW1 patients. Sassoon, a man so fearless in battle that he was known as ‘Mad Jack’, collapsed at Rivers’ funeral. Put it also with Bartlett’s expressions of devotion, at Rivers’s death and repeated fifteen and forty-five years later. Here is Bartlett writing in the St John’s magazine just after Rivers died:

‘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.

‘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, 1922, p14)

My reading is that Bartlett couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘love’. For it is clear that Rivers, like the other founding father William in the other Cambridge—William James, with whom many comparisons spring to mind—was loved by many people.

Here is Bartlett on Rivers fifteen years later, in the American Journal of Psychology:

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)

There was Rivers I and Rivers II. Rivers I, before the Great War, was a diffident scholar. Here is Walter Langdon-Brown, in the St Bartholomew’s Hospital Journal, looking back over forty years to the Rivers of the 1890s:

In those days he was very reserved in mixed company, and was hampered by a stammer which he had not yet entirely overcome. 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 dialectic. In the laboratory he devoted himself to experimental psychology of the Wundt type. In 1897 I got him to come and address the Abernethian Society. The occasion was not an unqualified success. He chose “Fatigue” as his subject, and before he had finished his title was writ large on the faces of his audience. (Langdon-Brown, 1936, p29)

He was at this time, according to Bartlett,

‘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)

But after the War ‘he became another and far happier man’, CS Myers tells us (and every one else confirms it). ‘Diffidence gave place to confidence, reticence to outspokenness, a somewhat laboured literary style to one remarkable for ease and charm.’ (Myers, 1922, p168)

“I have finished my serious work”, he said to Bartlett, “and I shall just let myself go.” He moved into larger rooms in the New Court and there he entertained all sorts of notable people, in literature, in politics and in Society. He flung aside completely all his dislike for practical affairs in College and University His Sunday breakfasts became famous. He formed a club for discussion known as The Socratics, and he brought to it all sorts of influential visitors—HG Wells, Arnold Bennett, Siegfried Sassoon and lots more.

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 roundto 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)

One of the new things he was taking on was being a Labour candidate for parliament. ‘Because the times are so ominous, the outlook for our own country and the world so black, that if others think I can be of service in political life, I cannot refuse.’ He died before the election.

I hope that puts the man before us. Now to the history lesson.


I’m going to organize the history around a simple chronological table of events. I put the headings in bold type so that you can, if you like, skim rapidly through it to get a sketchy cognitive framework. (I am indebted to Hearnshaw, 1964, Richards, 1998, Slobodin, 1978, and Smith, 1997, and the autobiographies of Myers, Bartlett and McDougall in The History of Psychology in Autobiography, for much of this background.)

1864 Rivers born

1875 Ward’s fellowship dissertation on psychophysics.

This is James Ward, who became Professor of Philosophy. Early in his career he did experimental work on frog nerves, and his fellowship dissertation at Trinity, The Relation of Physiology and Psychology, was a study of Weber’s and Fechner’s psychophysics. Later, he propounded a systematic philosophical psychology that allowed only a modest role for experimental psychology. Nevertheless, it was he who started the ball rolling, and kept it rolling, to establish the subject here.

In this same year William James first offers a course in physiological psychology at Harvard.

1879 Wundt founds first the psychological laboratory in Leipzig.

Germany universities were at this time benefitting from reforms in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and were decades ahead of the British in many respects. The Cambridge University Reporter for these years, in which the total university teaching staff occupies less than two pages, devotes large numbers of pages each year to comprehensive lists of the courses given in several German universities. Even though we were not providing the education ourselves, we knew where to go and get it. But I was surprised to find the information so prominent in the Reporter. An admirable pragmatic realism. Also a reminder of what a tragic rupture in European culture was caused by the world wars.

Another event in this year was the arrival of GF Stout at St Johns. He became a Fellow in 1894. Stout was here for 17 years, and hisManual of Psychology was the dominant British text for decades (last printed in 1938). In spite of that he seems to have made less impression on Cambridge psychology than Ward, Rivers, Myers et al, perhaps because he was a philosopher, and even less a biologist than Ward. But let him be a reminder that the Department of Experimental Psychology was not the whole of Cambridge psychology, then as now.

1886 Ward & Venn ask the General Board for psychophysical apparatus.

The department has an origin myth that is rather different from this. According to both Myers and Bartlett, in several accounts, Ward and Venn, the logician, in 1877, nine years earlier, ‘proposed to the University that there should be established in Cambridge a laboratory of psychophysics’ (Bartlett, 1937, p98). The proposal is said to have been attacked in a Senate discussion by ‘a certain theologically minded mathematician’ who asserted that it would ‘insult religion by putting the soul in a pair of scales’.

However, what is in the Reporter is a Report of the General Board (the principle executive committee of the university) in 1891, when they finally granted some money, which also reviews earlier requests. The first was this, in 1886, followed by a second in 1888. Bartlett describes the double request, but places it nine years earlier. This has the advantage of suggesting that Cambridge could have had the world’s first psychological laboratory, if only the university hadn’t been so conservative (Bartlett, 1937).

Nor could I find the famous discussion. There is some entertaining obscurantist protest in 1897, when Rivers’s lectureship is proposed, but I could find no discussion of anything to do with these earlier requests. It may well be lurking in sources that I have not searched, but I am left with a distinct suspicion that Myers and Bartlett were demonstrating Bartlett’s later thesis on the constructive nature of memory. (Though, to be fair, in one account Bartlett admits ‘I have never seen the actual report of the proceedings’. Bartlett, 1937, p98.)

Rivers qualifies at St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Takes many voyages as ship’s surgeon.

He is already showing his love of travel (he came from a naval family). On one voyage, he spends a month in the company of George Bernard Shaw. ‘many hours every day talking“the greatest treat of my life”’ (Kingsley Martin, 1966, p97)

1889 1st International Congress of Psychology; Charcot is President.

Its early occurrence in our story can remind us that we are talking about the founding not of psychology, but of some of its institutions. The word ‘psychology’ was coined in the 16th century. There was a course in ‘empirical psychology’ at Gšttingen by the mid eighteenth century (McClelland, 1980, p43). When Helmholtz published his Handbook of Physiological Optics, starting in the 1850s, he was already summarising a century or more of experimental psychophysical work on vision. Psychology is not a young subject.

1890 Rivers at Queen Square (Hughlings Jackson, Horsley)

Hughlings Jackson’s hierarchical evolutionary theory of brain organisation was perhaps the dominant intellectual influence on Rivers, throughout his life. This emphasizes the phylogenetically recent nature of the cerebral cortex, and sees a prime function of cortex as refining, keeping control of and inhibiting, the more primitive processes of the older mid-brain. This is one of those theories that contains a good deal of truth, but may be too powerful and attractive for its own good. In this case, glib metaphorical versions of it in psychiatry, social science and politics.

Victor Horsley was developing newly precise techniques for brain surgery. Rivers assisted him. Comparable to a young medical researcher a few years ago getting hands-on experience of the just emerging techniques of brain imaging.

William James’s Principles of Psychology.

The opening chapter of which is also a Jacksonian account of the brain.

1891 University grants Ward 50 ‘for apparatus’.

Venn and Ward had asked for 50 in 1886, and then in 1888 for ‘100 urgently required for the purchase of psychophysical apparatus; and the Special Board for Biology and Geology [which meant in effect the Physiological Laboratory] joined with the Special Board for Moral Science [Philosophy] in urging the appointment of a University Lecturer in the Physiology of the Senses (including Psychophysics).’ (Reporter, 1891). The response to this urgent request is to allocate 50 for apparatus after a three-year delay. The lectureship is not mentioned.

1892 Rivers in Jena. Resolves ‘to devote his life to psychology, and especially to its morbid manifestations’. Post at Bethlem Hospital.

2nd International Congress of Psychology, in London. Sully and F.W.H. Myers (no relation to C.S. Myers) are joint secretaries.

1893 Works with Kraepelin in Heidelberg.

1894 Rivers visiting lecturer on Special Senses (Foster).

Sir Michael Foster, the professor of Physiology, was engaged in rejuvenating Cambridge medical studies. An external examiner had complained of the weakness of Cambridge students’ knowledge of the senses, and Foster appointed Rivers to remedy this.

1895 Breuer and Freud’s Studies in Hysteria.

1897 Rivers appointed University Lecturer.

By Cambridge standards, this innovation was relatively painless and prompt. Compare it with degrees for women, which were recommended by a lengthy report in this same year, 1897. They were not granted until 1948. Or with sociology. It too was thriving in Germany in the late nineteenth century, but the first Cambridge post was not till 1970. In hindsight, we might say it that was correctly perceived that psychology was not so subversive after all. I do not mean that entirely as a compliment.

I should like at this point to introduce two more dramatis personae: Charles S. Myers and William McDougall.

By 1897 Myers ‘had already published in physical anthropology and had become a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1896, four years before Rivers was elected.’ (Slobodin, p21). Myers was an organiser who created institutions. I have not managed to get a strong impression of him intellectually, but, Bartlett (1937) credits him with ‘the scientific temper, the sanity, the breadth, the clarity, the insight possessed to the same degree by no other living English psychologist. Psychology in Cambridge was built by all these three (Ward, Rivers, Myers), and by others; but if I had to say upon whom its present position and its future possibilities most of all depended, I would, without hesitation, declare: upon C.S. Myers.’

McDougall passes through this story like a comet. He was academically precocious, entered Manchester University at the age of 14, obtained a 1st class science degree, and then came to Cambridge and read medicine. He was a pupil of Rivers, but a Fellow of St Johns some years before his teacher. His Social Psychology is said to have been the most widely used psychology text ever. He moved to Harvard in 1920, but found himself the wrong man in the wrong place. Behaviourism had swept into American psychology, and McDougall had no sympathy with it.

1898 Torres Straits Expedition: Haddon,Rivers, McDougall and Myers.

The main scientific motive behind the psychological work of the expedition was to test the ‘fairly unanimous’ attribution ‘to savage and semi-civilized races [of] a higher degree of acuteness of sense than is found among Europeans’ (Rivers, 1901, p12). The three psychologists measured thresholds and performed other tests in all five sensory modalities. They found little difference between Torres Strait islanders and Europeans, and in spite of subsequent criticisms of their methods (see Richards, 1998), this conclusion has by and large held.

Rivers also started to collect genealogies (see below). This not only led to his steadily increasing involvement in anthropology, but can also be seen as the start of the strong concern with kinship systems in British Social Anthropology.

This expedition has been described both as the founding moment of British anthropology, and a turning point in British psychology. For example, Richards (1998) says: ‘The expedition was thus a pivotal moment in psychology’s metamorphosis from a discipline dominated by philosophical agendas and aprioristic Spencerian theorising into its post-1900 Modernist forms.’ (Only a few years later—1907—Picasso will paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the icon of modernism.)

One of the surprises of the expedition was how friendly, welcoming and cooperative the islanders were, belieing their earlier reputation for hostility and even cannibalism. Pat Barker portrays suggestively how relationships made here started a process of change in Rivers. It also started a relationship which is still, 100 years later, of great importance for the islanders. The published reports of the expedition are still well known, having supported successful land rights claims against the Australian government. Islanders are visiting Cambridge this year and next in connection with the centennial exhibition. This is living history. (Herle and Rouse, 1998)

1900 Rivers’ ch on ‘Vision’ in SchŠfer’s handbook.

‘until 1898 he was immersed in the task of mastering the entire literature of past experimental work on vision This exhaustive article of 123 pages is still regarded as the most accurate and careful account of the whole subject in the English language.’ (Myers, 1922, p154).

1901 ‘a room acquired in a dark and uncomfortable cottage’

British Psychological Society founded: Sully, Rivers, McDougall

1902 Rivers in India with the Todas for 5 months.

Vol 2 (psychophysics etc, mostly written by Rivers) of Torres Straits Reports is published. Rivers is efficient. Haddon did not get Vol 1 published until 1935!

Studies regeneration in Head’s arm.

A surgeon was engaged to sever a cutaneous nerve in Head’s arm. This rendered a largish area of skin on the hand and lower arm anaesthetic. They studied the slow return of sensation. ‘For five happy years’, says Head, ‘we worked together on weekends and holidays in the quiet atmosphere of his rooms in St John’s College’ (Head, 1923).

Rivers interpreted the results in terms of a Jacksonian distinction between ‘protopathic’ and ‘epicritic’. The more discrimintive, epicritic, mode of response, ‘has been superimposed on one of a primitive character, which, under normal conditions, is in part inhibited and in part utilised in the final sensation. The excessive reaction to certain stimuli, apparent during recovery of sensibility, is due to the escape of “protopathic” impulses from the control normally exercised by the “epicritic” system. This conception had a profound influence on Rivers’ psychological views and subsequently formed the basis of Instinct and the Unconscious, the most far-reaching and popular of his writings.’ (Head, 1923, piii.) Rivers’ later extrapolated the distinction also to the interaction between cultures.

1903 Psychology acquires ‘a whole house’ in Mill Lane.

There are by this time more than forty psychological laboratories in the United States.

1904 Ward and Rivers found the British J Psychology.

With the assistance of Myers, McDougall and Sherrington.

Myers becomes University Demonstrator in Experimental Psychology at Cambridge. He holds this in parallel with a professorship at King’s London (whose psychology department later moved to Birkbeck) until 1909 (Myers, 1936).

1906 The Todas

Here Rivers developed further his genealogical method, generating kinship diagrams. Bartlett recalled years later how when he first visited Rivers, as a new undergraduate, the conversation sprang into life when some excuse allowed Rivers to start showing him these diagrams.

The method, as I crudely understand it, consisted of asking every informant to name as many of his or her relatives as possible, stating the relationship. This allowed to him to place every member of the community (ca 800 Todas) on a vast grid of relationships. It provided internal checks on the reliability of informants, because each relationship is described by more than one person. You can see it would appeal to an experimental psychologist. It is quantifying culture, or at any rate social organisation. Its attraction diminishes slightly when one reflects that it was all carried out through an interpreter, and that the meanings of the relationship terms were the end product, not the start. The book, however, contains much more than genealogical charts, and is described by Mandelbaum, in an essay on the book in 1980, as being for fifty years ‘a standard of ethnography.’

1908 Rivers in Melanesia.

1909 Myers becomes the first full time University Lecturer in Experimental Psychology in Cambridge.

1912 Psychological Laboratory opened: the result of four years’ work by Myers, plus a   good deal of his own money.

In the Easter term Wittgenstein (arr. 1911) and Myers experiment on musical rhythm (Monk, 1990). A tenuous link to another subculture.

1914 Kinship and Social Organisation, and The History of Melanesian Society.

The former was reprinted as recently as 1968. Rivers regarded The History of Melanesian Society as his most important contribution to science. It is now little read.

‘In 1914, a Tripos in Anthropology was established, which I likewise initiated’ (Myers, 1936, p221).

1915 ‘Shell-shock’ in the First World War.

The First World War produced an enormous and totally unforeseen epidemic of what came to be called ‘shell-shock’. This was Myers’s term, and caught on immediately, to his later regret. It is certainly more catchy than ‘Post traumatic stress disorder’.

It affected, it has been estimated, 7-10% of officers, and 3-4% of other ranks and led to 200,000 discharges (Stone, 1985).

Myers, too old for the army, went to France as a civilian volunteer but was soon commisioned in the RAMC and ‘instructed to supervise the treatment of functional nervous and mental disorders in the British Expeditionary Force’. [Ie he was in charge of shell-shock cases for the whole British army in France.] ‘I must have been, I suppose, the first to recognize the essentially psychological nature of this condition’ (Myers, 1936, p223) He was not always successful in preventing the military authorities from shooting his patients for cowardice.

Back in England, the Medical Research Council set up a Military Hospital at Maghull, near Liverpool, under the charge of Ronald Rows. Rows had read Janet and Freud and saw the relevance of their ideas about dissociated states following traumatic experiences. Maghull became a college of psychotherapy, such as has never been seen before or since. Among those passing through were Rivers, Pear, Hart, MacCurdy, Seligman, Myers, McDougall, Wiliam Brown (Costall, 1996). So this, after Torres Straits, was the second dramatic formative experience linking the lives of our main characters.

‘By the end of the war At Maghull squads of 50 RAMC officers were being given 3-month courses on the techniques of 'abreactive' psychotherapy - including dream analysis.’ (Stone, 1985).

Rivers was posted from Maghull to Craiglockhart hospital, near Edinburgh. His post-war books on psychodynamics, and Pat Barker’s novels are based on his experiences there.

1920 Instinct and the Unconscious.

This is Rivers’ theoretical reflection on his War experience as a therapist. Conflict and Dream, published posthumously, continues the discussion.

1922 Rivers dies.

Without warning, of a strangulated hernia. It was a week-end, he was alone in his college rooms, and not found until too late. He died in the Evelyn Nursing Home, after an emergency operation. He was given an elaborate college funeral according to his own detailed instructions. Funerary rites were one of his specialities. His ashes are buried in what was St Giles’ churchyard [entrance at the corner of Story’s Way and Huntingdon Road], which contains many famous Cambridge figures.

Both Bartlett and Sassoon give moving testimony to their intense grief at Rivers’s death, and both describe dreams in which he came back to them.

Myers leaves Cambridge.

‘On demobilization I returned to Cambridge, fired with the desire to apply psychology to medicine, industry, and education and becoming increasingly disgusted, after my very practical experience during the War, with the old academic atmosphere of conservatism and opposition to psychology. I found that the wild rise of psychoanalysis had estranged the Regius Professor of Physic; I received little encouragement from the Professor of Physiology; and the Professor of Mental Philosophy, to my surprise, publicly opposed the suggested exclusion of the word “experimental” in the title, now about to be conferred on me by the University, of Reader in Experimental Psychology. Thus medicine, physiology and philosophy had little use then at Cambridge for the experimental psychologist.’

He stayed for four years, however, until he could hand over to Bartlett. Then he left to found the Institute of Industrial Psychology in London, which, with no government support, reached a staff of fifty within a few years.

Bartlett became director of the Psychological Laboratory, a position he held for thirty years.

1926 The Royal Commission on Oxford and Cambridge led to the Psychological               Laboratory being placed in the biological sciences.

This was part of a re-organization of departments into faculties.

‘Very nearly all the subsequent changes have grown out of this one’ wrote Bartlett in 1937. One side of him was clear that this was right: ‘Psychology is a biological science. This means that it definitely restricts its study to the conditions by which any type of animal and human response to stimuli and organization of stimuli is determined. We agree to give up asking what a sensation, or an image, or an idea, or an emotion actually is and we ask under what conditions responses involving these occur.’

And yet in the same article he wrote that the Torres Strait ‘expedition did another thing. It put a social and ethnological stamp upon Cambridge psychology and this has perhaps done more than anything else to make Cambridge psychology human as well as scientific.’ (Bartlett, 1936)

Bartlett was aware both of the benefits that would accrue from establishing the department in a biology faculty, and also the drawbacks. He seems to have put a barrier in place while at the same time wanting not to.

1931 Bartlett appointed to a new chair established in Experimental Psychology.


So there’s the history, all too sketchy of course, but I hope it has brought both Rivers and some of our institutional history, a little bit more alive. It certainly did for me. In fact I have been amazed at how much more interesting it is than I had realised. This may be very much a psychologist’s reaction. Anthropologists discuss their past a lot, but experimental psychologists consign it to the dustbin and fix their eyes on the next white hope.

How do we now evaluate Rivers?

We can point to Adrian [whose portrait was above me as I spoke], and say ‘that is the man who discovered the nervous impulse’. We can’t do anything comparable with Rivers. We can argue, as I indicated, for the considerable influence of his work in all four fields. That is quite something. Also I can vouch for his work in all those fields still being very much worth reading (even if one has to reframe it a little, but that is inevitable).

But none of the current evaluations are uncontroversial:-

‘Protopathic’ vs ‘epicritic’. Zangwill, 1987, in the Oxford Companion to the Mind, remarks: ‘Although raising much interest at the time, this theory has now been wholly discarded’. But Sherrick & Cholewiak, 1986, in a lengthy and authoritative review on cutaneous sensitivity, are much less dismissive and conclude: ‘certain aspects of Head's duality theory have found support from electrophysiological evidence.’ (Though it will hardly surprise any expert on sensory processes that a duplicity theory still finds some supporters.)

Todas. I cited Mandelbaum. But Adam Kuper, in The Social Science Encyclopaedia, says: ‘his ethnographies are not among classics of their time.’ Anthropologists will be able to place these authors in their corresponding tribe.

Psychodynamic work. Ellenberger, 1970, in his major history of psychoanalysis, says: ‘In England [1918] psychoanalysis became increasingly popular, mainly through the work of Rivers.’ But what strikes me is how he disappears from sight so soon after his death, and is ignored by the up and coming true Freudians. Karin Stephen’s Cambridge lectures given only a few years later make no mention of him. Ernest Jones mentions Rivers two or three times in his biography of Freud, but only as ‘the distinguished anthropologist’ called upon to grace some committee or occasion. There is no mention that he was a psychotherapist even though Jones had reviewed Instinct and the Unconscious, not entirely unfavourably, around 1920.

A major cause of these contrary evaluations is the turbulence of the professional landscapes since Rivers, particularly in the decade after his death. In anthropology, the Malinowskian revolution with its emphasis on extended fieldwork made Rivers look amateurish, and its theoretical stress on the autonomy of cultures was inhospitable to Rivers’ diffusionism. In psychiatry, the aforementioned ‘wild rise of psychoanalysis’, that is, the rise of the psychoanalytic profession, produced a polarisation with respect to Freud’s ideas, from which we still suffer. Rivers’s critical acceptance of some Freudian ideas, together with an attempt to place them in a biological context, survived only as a rather tenuous minority position.

As I have learnt more about Rivers and his contemporaries I have been repeatedly struck by the contrast between their enthusiastic founding of disciplines and their impatience with the consequent restrictions. Rivers showed it by his restless life. And in 1914 he wrote:

specialisation has in recent years reached such a pitch that it has become a serious evil. There is even a tendency to regard with suspicion one who betrays the possession of knowledge and attainments outside a narrow circle of interests. (Rivers, 1914)

We saw above how Myers reacted against the restrictions of academic experimental psychology after his war experience. William James expressed it even more strongly in a letter: ‘Psychology is a nasty little subject—all one cares to know lies outside.’ (James, 1920, p2).

One feature of this ambivalence is perhaps peculiar to experimental psychology. That is the tension between a high estimate of the importance of laboratory methods, on the one hand, and a certain impatience with practicing them, on the other. Rivers, Myers and Bartlett all repeatedly insist—it recurs like a mantra—on the importance of a sound grounding in the psychophysical methods in the formation of a psychologist, and they did all perform lengthy studies using them. But here is Bartlett describing his experience, when he was a student, around 1909, of James Ward:

He was alternatively a little amusing and terribly irritating in the laboratory. He prowled about, up and down, ill at ease, a bit envious maybe, but far more than a bit disgusted, and inclined to rate all our problems as trivialities. (Bartlett, 1937, p100)

Twenty years later he describes it from his point of view:

I doubt if we can have been a very rewarding class. Privately we grumbled and groused like anything. We vowed we would lift no more weights, learn no more nonsense syllables, strike no more tuning forks, cross out no more e’s Everything that could be was in a strict pattern of psychological method, and now I know it was greatly to our good. [But] when we left the laboratory we promptly dropped it all. What had it to do with our daily life? It was indeed just a laboratory game, boring in parts, engrossing in others, but just a game. (Bartlett, 1956, pp82-83)

And here is Bartlett described by one of his own students (Rodger, 1971, p178):

in 1929, in my last year in his laboratory, I chided Bartlett on the infrequency of his appearances when we were doing our practical work. The occasion was, I think, the first on which I had ever seen him in the room; and I had the temerity to ask why. He smiled in his Bartlettian way; his bushy eyebrows shot up, his brow furrowed and his cheeks puffed out. “I suppose,” he said, “it is because I think most of the things you do here are dull and rather trivial.”

In contrast to this, Bartlett’s own experimental techniques in Remembering are, as has often been pointed out, remarkably free and innovative.

These founding fathers were thus highly ambivalent. They set up disciplines of training and boundaries, and then belittled the former and cut across the latter. Rivers’s work in particular cut across boundaries over which academic wars have been fought in the past century. I am thinking of: individual versus collective explanations, interpretative versus natural science. He was also at the start of the trend to increasing reflexivity in human science (which is the right catch-all term for him). His pointing to these large issues is one reason why he is of great interest now.

The note I should like to end on is this:-

It is not the least of the merits of W.H.R.Rivers that the subject that he sketched out by his restless life as a psychologist (and he was always that, whatever else he also was) was more attractive, more lovable you might say (like the man himself), than any institutionalisation of it that we have yet achieved. Try to hold in your mind at once, if you will, the young medic studying in Germany and returning full of excitement at the latest ideas about the nervous system, about colour vision and about insanity, the anthropologist spending months with an exotic south Indian hill tribe, the careful experimental neurologist observing over years the regeneration of sensitivity in Henry Head’s arm, the psychotherapist earning the undying gratitude of his patients by helping them to live with the terrible memories of trench warfare. All this and more from a man who sometimes, because of poor health, could work no more than four hours a day. And these were not just random scraps in a patchwork quilt. For Rivers they were unified within a framework based equally on Jacksonian ideas about the evolution of the nervous system, and on painstaking attention to his own experience (cf the other Will in the other Cambridge). It is the spaciousness of the subject that his life sketches out that seems to me of enormous and lasting appeal, and a standing reproach to us when we allow the specialist disciplines that he helped found to restrict our vision rather than to facilitate our research. Surely we can be proud of such a founding father, and should not forget him.

Given as a talk to the Zangwill Club of the Dept of Experimental Psychology, Cambridge, 6 December 1997.


For help of various kinds I should like to thank Alan Costall, Jack Goody, Keith Hart, Anita Herle, Paul Ries and Simon Schaffer.


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Address for correspondence: Department of Experimental Psychology, Downing Site, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England

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