b.12 March 1864 d.4 June 1922
MB Lond(1886) MD Hon MA Cantab Hon LLD St And Hon DSc Manch MRCS FRCP(1899) FRS
William Rivers was born at Luton near Chatham, the son of Rev. H. F. Rivers of Maidstone, a descendant of Lieut. W. Rivers, R.N, on whose behalf the dying Nelson, on board the Victory, had given the instruction, "Take care of young Rivers". From an early education at Tonbridge School, Rivers went on to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, where he graduated as M.B. in 1886. He passed the next few years in junior appointments at St. Bartholomew’s, the Chichester Infirmary, the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic, and the Bethlem Royal Hospital. In 1892 he studied insanity and psychology at Jena, and in 1893 he lectured on psychology at Guy’s Hospital and University College. In the same year, however, Sir Michael Foster invited him to work and lecture on the physiology of the sense organs at Cambridge; and Cambridge remained the centre of his activities for the greater part of his life. He was appointed University lecturer on physiological and experimental psychology in 1897 and a fellow of St. John’s College five years later. In 1898 he accompanied the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Straits, from which he returned a keen ethnologist. This new interest inspired him to undertake expeditions to Southern India in 1902, to study the Todas, and to Melanesia in 1908 and again in 1914. These resulted in the publication of books on The Todas (1906), and History of Melanesian Society (1914). From 1903 to 1908 he was involved with Henry Head on epoch-making research on protopathic and epicritic sensation, in which he acted as Head’s observer when his radial nerve was cut experimentally.
The 1914-1918 War directed Rivers’ researches away from the purely scientific field into paths of practical application. Attached to Maghull and Craiglockhart Military Hospitals, he did work of the utmost value in the study and treatment of war neuroses, and later, as consulting psychologist to the Central Flying Hospital, Mount Vernon, he investigated the mental phenomena of flying. His association with large numbers of military patients enabled him to overcome his previous diffidence when he returned to St. John’s as a praelector in natural sciences after the War, and endowed him with a new and inspiring authority in the University. He published Instinct and the Unconscious in 1920.
Rivers was Croonian Lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians in 1906 and FitzPatrick Lecturer in 1915-16, and was awarded a Royal Society’s medal in 1915. At the time of his death he was president of the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Folk Lore Society. By then he had become a leading authority in a remarkably broad field, comprising the physiology of the sense organs, psychology, and anthropology, all of which he regarded as different aspects of the same problems — the biological reaction of man to his environment and the fuller understanding of man’s mind. Personally he was a man of high qualities — a keen intellect, broad sympathy and absolute integrity. He died at Cambridge.
G H Brown
[Lancet, 1922; B.M.J., 1922; Presidential Address to R.C.P., 1923, 16]
(Volume IV, page 413)
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