Wednesday 12 March 2014


A sesquicentenary today, and one worth marking - 150 years since the birth of William Halse Rivers Rivers. I knew of this remarkable man only as the humane, sympathetic (and conflicted) psychiatrist who treated Siegfried Sassoon (and Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen) for 'shell shock' at the Craiglockhart War Hospital - and with Sassoon it seems to have been, in a closeted Edwardian way, a case of mutual love at first sight. But Rivers was far more than a pioneering psychiatrist: he was also a notable anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and traveller, a participant in the ground-breaking Torres Strait expedition and author of seminal works on kinship. As well as the gruelling Torres Strait journey, Rivers also travelled for ethnographic purposes in Melanesia, Egypt, India and the Solomon Islands, as well as traversing much of the globe for recreation.
  All of this was accomplished despite disadvantages that would stopped many another man dead. He had a serious stammer and a curious lack of sensory memory - which he self-diagnosed as a response to a major childhood trauma. Rivers lost his last year at school - and his chance of a Cambridge scholarship - to a bout of typhoid fever, but this merely caused him to switch track and qualify in medicine, which he did in double-quick time, graduating MD at the prodigiously early age of 22. Amazingly, in view of all his subsequent achievements, he was never really in good health and needed much sleep, sometimes for days on end. One of his biographers stated that for many years of his life he could only work for four hours a day. They must have been very special Rivers hours...
And it was a short life; he died at just 58, of a strangulated hernia, when he was about to stand for Parliament (in the Labour interest).
 What's more, this remarkable man was by all accounts blessed with a personality so cordial and attractive that he inspired huge affection in all who crossed his path. No wonder Sassoon fell for him.


  1. I'm sure I'm telling you nothing new in referring you to Pat Barker' s excellent Regeneration trilogy which treats the very relationships between Rivers and the poets you mention. Plenty of homosexuality but rather veiled between Rivers and Sassoon. It's a great and shocking read.

  2. Yes indeed, he lives on fictionally in Pat Barker. Oddly there seems to be no book-form biography - surely it's time there was? A great man.

  3. There is however at least one website dedicated to him...