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William Halse Rivers 1864 - 1922 [abridged]

Citation: Bartlett, F.C. (1925). 'James Ward. 1843-1925 [obituary]', American Journal of Psychology 36: 449-453.

On June 3 last year I was walking through the grounds of St. John's College, here in Cambridge, when I met Dr. Rivers returning from a stroll. He was full of energy and enthusiasm, and began at once to talk about certain new courses of lectures which he proposed to deliver at the Psychological Laboratory during the present year. On the evening of the next day I heard that he was dangerously ill. As I approached the College on the morning of June 5 I saw the flag at half mast. He had, in fact, died in the early afternoon of the preceding day. Never have I known so deep a gloom settle upon the College 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. As Praelector of Natural Sciences at St. John's he interviewed all the science freshmen when they came first into residence and, in an amazing number of cases, he kept in close touch with them throughout their Cambridge career. Everybody who came into contact with him was stimulated and helped to a degree which those who are acquainted only with his published works can never fully realize.

Rivers was born in 1864, and in due course went to St. Bartholomew's Hospital where, at the age of twenty-two, he qualified to practise medicine. Already his attention had turned in the direction of psychology. As House Physician at St. Bartholomew's he read several papers before the Aberne- than Society on hysteria and neurasthenia.

In 1891 he was appointed House Physician at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic. Here it was that he met Dr. Henry Head... In 1893 Rivers was invited to Cambridge by Sir Michael Foster, to lecture on the physiology of the special senses, and in 1897 a movement, initiated many years before by Professor James Ward and Dr. Venn for the official recognition by the University of Experimental Psychology, produced its definite result, and Rivers was made University Lecturer of Physiological and Experimental Psychology: He was thus the first officially recognized teacher of experimental psychology at Cambridge. and the first person in England to plan and carry out a systematic course of practical teaching in the subject.

The year following he went with the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits. This was the first step of the second period of his career-the ethnological period, as it may be called. For some years yet, however, the greater part of his work was concerned with the psychology of the special senses, and particularly with that of vision. A glance at the bibliography of Rivers' published writings shows that, down to 1908, experimental work in psychology still occupied a large amount of his time. During this period he was carrying out his experiments on the influence of alcohol and other drugs on fatigue. Meanwhile an expedition to Southern India in 1902 had produced a number of papers on the Todas. [276]

In 1904, with Professor James Ward and some others, Rivers founded the British Journal of Psychology of which he was at first joint editor.

From 1908 till the outbreak of the late war Dr. Rivers was mainly preoccupied with ethnological and sociological problems. Already he had relinquished his official post as Lecturer in Experimental Psychology in favour of Dr. C. S. Myers, and now held only a lectureship on the physiology of the special senses. By degrees he became more absorbed in anthropological research until, several years before his death, he resigned his lectureship, and thenceforward held no University appointment. But though he was now ethnologist rather than psychologist he always maintained that what was of value in his work was due directly to his training in the psychological laboratory. In the laboratory he had learnt the importance of exact method; in the field he now gained vigor and vitality by his constant contact with the actual daily behavior of human beings.

In 1908 Rivers made his first journey to Melanesia. The material and interests which the voyage gave him occupied practically the whole of his attention until 1914, when his great work entitled "A History of Melanesian Society" was published. In that year he made a second journey to Melanesia, returning to England in March 1915, to find that war had broken out.

Now came the third period of his life, in which all his old enthusiasm for psychology returned, intensified and strengthened by a determination to keep his knowledge in the closest possible touch with real life. He now carried out a very large amount of neurological work, first with men and officers who were suffering from various psycho-neuroses of war, and in the second place as Psychologist to the Royal Air Force. [277]

.it is of Rivers as a man that we think; of his eager and unconquerable optimism, and of his belief in the possible greatness of all things human. Whatever may be the verdict of the years upon his published works, the influence of his vivid personality will remain for all who knew him as one of the best things that have ever entered their lives.


From American Journal of Psychology. Copyright 1923 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press (http://www.press.uillinois.edu/journals/ajp.html).