I’ve been studying English intellectual history for nearly three decades, focusing on the years between 1865 and 1925. At the beginning of this period intellectual life in England took place largely outside the universities; by the end of it the modern university had emerged, replete with its professional journals and division of faculties, and has claimed a monopoly over serious scholarship ever since.
And yet a decade ago I resolved to pursue my own research as an independent scholar, without any university affiliation. In this short essay I offer some reflections on how my work has shaped my attitude toward the modern university.
A child of Thatcher, my early research explored the origins of neoclassical economics. Specifically, I looked at the reformation of classical economics at the hands of Alfred Marshall, the founder of modern university economics. Marshall established economics as an independent discipline in Cambridge in 1903, but his intellectual innovations occurred in the early 1870s, when political economy formed part of the ‘moral sciences’ faculty and his university was in the midst of wholesale overhaul.
Oxford and Cambridge are medieval institutions, but the Elizabethan settlement had established them as bastions of the English Reformation. The first part of the nineteenth century saw sustained agitation from religious dissenters to end the Anglican monopoly and ‘nationalize’ the ancient universities. By the 1870s, an alliance of progressive Anglicans and secular reformers had gained a secure foothold within these institutions and non-Anglicans, and also for the first time women students, entered the colleges. At the same time, a number of liberal Oxbridge dons became the vanguard of the ‘extension movement’ that led to the establishment of new colleges and universities throughout the country. The extension movement was the liberal elite’s response to the 1867 franchise extension, in which anxiety about democracy fostered a resolve to educate citizens so they might cast their vote responsibly.
My core discovery was that the reform of Oxbridge and the establishment of new national institutions of higher education was the unstated premise upon which Marshall’s neoclassical economics was built. Classical economics envisages a homogenous labour force paid from past profits. The young Marshall broke the straitjacket of this model by reasoning that an injection of education changed all the relationships: the educated worker was more productive but demanded higher wages, but firms could borrow to cover their higher wage bill. Moving away from a single model, in which two classes of capitalists and workers contest division of a fixed fund, Marshall envisaged a multitude of labour markets in which wages correspond to productivity. Essentially, Marshall was saying that universal higher education would not only train citizens but also usher in a new kind of economy.
In England, then, neoclassical economics was born from the progressive liberal push that established many of our current institutions of higher education. But between Marshall’s 1873 dream of a competitive, classless society, and Tony Blair’s Marshallian election platform 124 years later, something untoward occurred.
In 1873 economics was one of several Cambridge moral sciences, of which philosophy was queen. Marshall subscribed to the Idealist conviction that the human personality is not mechanical and therefore accepted that education cannot be entirely reduced to system. Consequently, he envisaged the university, the foundation of the new economy, as standing in part outside it. But by 1903 Marshall had established economics as an independent discipline. Freed from humanistic constraints, a newly autonomous neoclassical discourse gradually extended itself into all spheres of public policy debate. Today, Frankenstein’s monster has consumed its parent and the result is called the neoliberal university.
Now, the obvious moral of this story is that we have lost today any sure framework of values that can hold the economizing mind at bay. Yet this loss seems built into the modernization of the English universities. Academic specialization is just Adam Smith’s principle of the division of labour applied to institutions of research. But such division is merely fragmentation unless some kind of co-ordination and overall supervision is in place. Hence, university government and administrators. Traditionally, the university has been an independent and self-governing institution, its decision-making body the university senate, composed of the professors of the various disciplines. But self-government requires some consensus on the mission and purpose of the institution as a whole, not simply its various faculties.
In early Victorian Cambridge, the governing supervision was clerical, and theology exercised an invisible yet omniscient check on all academic ventures. In the last decades of the nineteenth century some aspects of this central ideology were taken over by philosophy. But once the various faculties of the humanities and social sciences became autonomous the intellectual center was lost. Vague, undeveloped, and increasingly outdated notions of Max Weber’s vision of science as a vocation held things together for several decades. But when in the 1980s vice-chancellors who knew which way the political wind was blowing began to take control from the university senates, they met no effective internal resistance. Today university self-government has given way to rule by professional administrators, who enforce their own discipline of efficient resource allocation and quality control on a disgruntled academic workforce.
Yet those who today rail against the neoliberal university usually ignore, and perhaps fail to even see, a related yet more profound problem. For if disciplinary autonomy undermined the ideal of scholarship as a vocation, it has also undermined scholarship itself.
Whatever you might feel about neoclassical economics, I think there can be no doubt about Marshall’s intellectual creativity. And what is striking here is that his innovations were carried out in an environment in which political economy was not hermetically isolated from other disciplines. Indeed, my research revealed that his achievement rested upon substantial borrowings from philosophy, psychology, and contemporary historical scholarship. Contrast this ‘multi-disciplinary’ reformation of political economy in the face of a changing social reality with the revelation of imperial nakedness that marked the response of professional economists to the 2009 financial crisis. Since Marshall, neoclassical economics has been thoroughly mathematicised and an array of techniques have been added to the professional economist’s toolbox; but any progress in dealing with real world problems on any level beyond the ideological may be seriously doubted.
Subsequent research has reinforced my suspicions. Back in 2004 I discovered in the archive a long essay that the young Marshall had written on the history of the world. Historians of economics had ignored it because they assumed that an essay on history could have no connection to Marshall’s economic thought. The essay became a vital part of my reconstruction of Marshall’s early economic work; but I also became fascinated with the historical vision it embodied and have since dedicated several years to tracing its origins and subsequent fate.
This investigation has led to the unearthing of an entirely forgotten episode in early twentieth-century English intellectual history. Between around 1910 and 1924, a newly established faculty of Anthropology at Cambridge saw the coming together of field anthropologists (recently returned from the Torres Straits), experimental psychologists, Classical archaeologists and Anglo-Saxonists, who together began to develop a new social theory founded upon the idea that the contact of peoples had been (and remained) the key driving force of human history. This truly ‘inter-disciplinary’ research project floundered with the death in 1922 of one of its key figures, W.H.R. Rivers, and sank into the sand in the wake of Bronisław Malinowski’s success in establishing anthropology as an autonomous discipline.
Whether or not the theories of the Cambridge ‘anthropologists’ were correct is not the point here. What matters is that their passing marked the end of a remarkable period of university life, in which the foundations of the modern research institute were laid but academic specialization had not yet limited researchers to communicating with a handful of fellow-specialists and a captive-audience of students.
What I take from these two episodes of Cambridge history is that a university can be a site of astonishingly creative cross-disciplinary work, but that once disciplinary boundaries have ossified, it usually is not.
Let me jump from the early twentieth century to the present day. As an independent scholar I earn my living as a freelance academic editor. I have a busy period in the autumn when I receive floods of grant applications to edit. A good number of these propose ‘inter-disciplinary’ conferences and longer-term projects on various themes. They always explain how the proposed meeting of minds from different disciplines will enrich our understanding and generate new paradigms, and so on. Then, at other times of the year, I’m occasionally asked to edit a collected volume that has emerged from an earlier such project. And what I am invariably confronted with is a series of chapters by distinguished scholars, each writing from his or her own discipline, with no one essay having any relationship whatsoever with the other essays in the volume.
Within my own admittedly obscure field of intellectual history, disciplinary specialization does not simply stultify, it generates fundamentally flawed scholarship. Both my work on Marshall and my discovery of the ‘contact of peoples’ anthropologists break new ground. Nobody has noticed these things before. But this is less testimony to my research abilities than indictment of the disciplinary histories that inform conventional understandings of the intellectual past. A disciplinary history is the work of a practitioner of a discipline who projects that discipline back into history and so discovers a past populated by modern university professionals avant la lettre. The past might be a foreign country, but to the disciplinary historian in an age of globalization all countries look the same.
On becoming an independent scholar my research and writing improved substantially. After a while I realized that this was because I no longer had ready access to reams of secondary literature via JSTOR and the like and had to focus my attention pretty much exclusively on the primary literature (much of which I could access free through the wonderful Internet Archive. In my own field most of the secondary literature is tripe and reading it harmful to genuine illumination of the past.
I recognize that my research shines a light upon only a very limited world, and that my own experiences as an intellectual historian are narrow in relation to the wider world of research and learning. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to forget that the monopolization of scholarship by the universities is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of the canonical authors – who were named as such in the early periods of disciplinary formation – worked outside established institutions. And while the likes of Coleridge and J.S. Mill laboured as ‘independent scholars’ avant la lettre, their Oxbridge contemporaries were charged with instilling correct Anglican doctrines in the ‘rising generation’. A good part of the knowledge produced and taught by today’s academics strikes me as no less safe, vapid, and moribund as that disseminated by their counterparts a century and a half ago.
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before
‘Under Which Lyre’, W.H. Auden. 1946.
You can read most of the research on which I draw on my academia.edu page. The research on Marshall is set out in my 2009 book, but some of the relevant arguments are summarized in the second part of my essay on ‘Culture and Political Economy’. For a sustained polemic on modern disciplinary histories see my ‘The Tragedy of Cambridge Anthropology’.
For detailed accounts of the emergence of the neoliberal university in Britain from the 1980s on see Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’ (2006) and his working paper ‘The “Form” of “Reform”: The Postwar University in Britain, 1945-1992’, both available on Keith’s academia.edu page.
These reflections as a whole were inspired by my reading of an early draft of Gregory C. G. Moore’s forthcoming Rounded Globe eBook, Leslie Stephen and the Clubbable Men of Radical London.
Simon J. Cook
CC BY-SA. 4.0 license: you are free to share and adapt this text for any purpose.
William Halse Rivers Rivers, FRCP, FRS, ((1864-03-12)12 March 1864 – (1922-06-04)4 June 1922) was an Englishanthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist, best known for his work treating First World War officers who were suffering from shell shock. Rivers's most famous patient was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, with whom he remained close friends until his own sudden death. Rivers was a fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, and is also notable for his participation in the Torres Straits expedition of 1898 and his consequent seminal work on the subject of kinship.
Rivers was born in 1864 at Constitution Hill, Chatham, Kent, son of Elizabeth Hunt (16 October 1834 – 13 November 1897) and Henry Frederick Rivers (7 January 1830 – 9 December 1911).
Records from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries show the Rivers family to be solidly middle-class with many Cambridge, Church of England and Royal Navy associations, the most famous of which were Midshipman William Rivers and his father Gunner Rivers who both served aboard HMS Victory.
The senior Rivers, also called William, was the master gunner aboard the Victory and it is thanks to his commonplace book (now kept in the Royal Naval Museum library in Portsmouth) that many of the thoughts of the sailors aboard Nelson's flagship are preserved. Midshipman Rivers, who claimed to be "the man who shot the man who fatally wounded Lord Nelson" proved himself to be a model of heroism in the Battle of Trafalgar. In the course of his duties, the seventeen-year-old midshipman's foot was almost completely blown off by a grenade, left attached to him "by a Piece of Skin abought 4 inch above the ankle". Rivers asked first for his shoes, then told the gunner's mate to look after the guns and informed Captain Hardy that he was going down to the cockpit. The leg was then sawn off, without anaesthetic, four inches below the knee. According to legend, he did not cry out once during the amputation nor during the consequent sealing of the wound with hot tar. When Gunner Rivers, anxious about his son's welfare, went to the cockpit to ask after him the young man called out from the other side of the deck, "Here I am, Father, nothing is the matter with me; only lost my leg and that in a good cause." After the Battle, the senior Rivers wrote a poem about his remarkable son entitled "Lines on a Young Gentleman that lost his leg onboard the Victory in the Glorious action at Trafalgar":
|“||May every comfort Bless thy future life, |
And smooth thy cares with fond and tender wife.
Which of you all Would not have freely died,
To Save Brave Nelson There Dear Country's Pride.
Born to another naval Rivers, Lieutenant William Rivers, R.N., then stationed at Deptford, Henry Rivers followed many family traditions in being educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and entering the church. Having earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1857, he was ordained as a Church of England priest in 1858, a career that would span almost 50 years until, in 1904, he was forced to tender his resignation due to "infirmities of sight and memory".
In 1863, having obtained a curacy at Chatham in addition to a chaplain's post, Henry Rivers was in a position to marry Elizabeth Hunt who was living with her brother James in Hastings, not far from Chatham.
The Hunts, like the Riverses, were an established naval and Church of England family. One of those destined for the pulpit was Thomas (1802–1851), but some quirk of originality set him off into an unusual career. While an undergraduate at Cambridge, Thomas Hunt had a friend who stammered badly and his efforts to aid the afflicted student led him to leave the University without taking a degree in order to make a thorough study of speech and its defects. He built up a good practice as a speech therapist and was patronised by Sir John Forbes MD FRS, who sent him pupils for twenty four years. Hunt's most famous case came about in 1842 when George Pearson, the chief witness in the case respecting the attempt on the life of Queen Victoria made by John Francis, was brought into court he was incapable of giving his evidence. However, after just a fortnight's instruction from Hunt he spoke easily, a fact certified by the sitting magistrate. Hunt died in 1851, survived by his wife Mary and their two children. His practice was then passed on to his son, James.
James Hunt (1833–1869) was an exuberant character, giving to each of his ventures his boundless energy and self-confidence. Taking up his father's legacy with great zeal, by the age of 21 Hunt had published his compendious work, "Stammering and Stuttering, Their Nature and Treatment". This went into six editions during his lifetime and was reprinted again in 1870, just after his death, and for an eighth time in 1967 as a landmark in the history of speech therapy. In the introduction to the 1967 edition of the book, Elliot Schaffer notes that in his short lifetime James Hunt is said to have treated over 1,700 cases of speech impediment, firstly in his father's practice and later at his own institute, Ore House near Hastings, which he set up with the aid a doctorate he had purchased in 1856 from the University of Giessen in Germany.
In later, expanded editions, "Stammering and Stuttering" begins to reflect Hunt's growing passion for anthropology exploring, as it does, the nature of language usage and speech disorders in non-European peoples. In 1856, Hunt had joined the Ethnological Society of London and by 1859 he was its joint secretary. He was not, however, a popular man within the society as many of the members disliked his attacks on religious and humanitarian agencies represented by missionaries and the anti-slavery movement.
As a result of the antagonism, Hunt founded the Anthropological Society and became its president, a position that would be taken up by his nephew almost sixty years later. It was mainly to do with Hunt's efforts that the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) accepted anthropology in 1866.
Even by Victorian standards, Hunt was a decided racist. His paper "On a Negro's Place in Nature", delivered before the BAAS in 1863, was met with hisses and catcalls. What Hunt saw as "a statement of the simple facts" was in fact a defence of the subjection and slavery of African-Americans and a support of the belief in the plurality of human species.
In addition to his extremist views, Hunt also led his society to incur heavy debts. The controversies surrounding his conduct told on his health and, on 29 August 1869, Hunt died of "inflammation of the brain" leaving a widow, Henrietta Maria, and five children.
Hunt's speech therapy practice was passed onto Hunt's brother-in-law, Henry Rivers, who had been working with him for some time. With the practice came many of Hunt's established patients, most notably The Reverend Charles L. Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) who had been a regular visitor to Ore House.
To his nephew William, Hunt had left his books though a young Rivers had refused them, thinking that they would be of no use to him.
William Halse Rivers Rivers was the oldest of four children, with his siblings being brother Charles Hay (29 August 1865 – 8 November 1939) and sisters Ethel Marian (30 October 1867 – 4 February 1943) and Katharine Elizabeth (1871–1939).
William, known as "Willie" throughout his childhood, appears to have taken his Christian name from his famous uncle of Victory fame, as well as from a longstanding family tradition whereby the eldest son of every line would be baptised by that name. The origin of "Halse" is unclear, though it is possible that there is some naval connection as it has been suggested that it could have been the name of someone serving alongside his uncle. Slobodin states that it is probable that the second "Rivers" entered his name as a result of a clerical error on the baptismal certificate but since the register is filled in by his father's hand and he was to perform the ceremony, one would think it unlikely that a mistake would have been made in this case. Slobodin is correct to note that there is a mistake on the registry of his birth but since his name was changed from the mistaken "William False Rivers Rivers" to its later form, it seems probable that "Rivers" was intended to appear as a given name as well as a surname.
Ironically, given family interest in the subject, Rivers suffered from a stammer that never truly left him, he also had no sensory memory although he was able to visualise to an extent if dreaming, in a half-waking, half-sleeping state or when feverish. This had not always been the case; Rivers notes that in his early life- specifically before the age of five- his visual imagery was far more definite than it became in later life and perhaps as good as that of the average child.
At first, Rivers had concluded that his loss of visual imagery had come about as a result of his lack of attention and interest in it. However, as he later came to realise, while images from his later life frequently faded into obscurity, those from his infancy still remained vivid.
As Rivers notes in Instinct and the Unconscious, one manifestation of his lack of visual memory was his inability to visualise any part of the upper floor of the house he lived in until he was five. This visual blank is made even more significant by the fact that Rivers was able to describe the lower floors of that particular house with far more accuracy than he had been able to with any house since and, although images of later houses were faded and incomplete, no memory since had been as inaccessible as that of the upper floor of his early home. With the evidence that he was presented with, Rivers was led to the conclusion that something had happened to him on the upper floor of that house, the memory of which was entirely suppressed because it "interfered with [his] comfort and happiness". Indeed, not only was that specific memory rendered inaccessible but his sensory memory in general appears to have been severely handicapped from that moment.
If Rivers ever did come to access the veiled memory then he does not appear to make a note of it so the nature of the experience is open to conjecture. One such supposition was put forward by Pat Barker, in the second novel in her Regeneration Trilogy, The Eye in the Door. Whatever the case, in the words of Barker's character Billy Prior, Rivers's experience was traumatic enough to cause him to "put his mind's eye out".
Whatever his disadvantages, Rivers was an unquestionably able child. Educated first at a Brighton preparatory school and then, from the age of thirteen, as a dayboy at the prestigious Tonbridge School, his academic abilities were noted from an early age. Young Rivers's talents led to him being placed a year above others of his age at school and even within this older group he was seen to excel, winning prizes for Classics and all around attainment. It is also worth noting that Rivers's younger brother Charles was also a high achiever at the school; he too was awarded with the Good Work prize and would go on to become a civil engineer until, after a bad bout of malaria contracted whilst in the Torres Straits with his brother, he was prompted by the elder Rivers to take up outdoor work.
The teenage Rivers, whilst obviously scholarly, was also involved in other aspects of school life. As the programme for the Tonbridge School sports day notes, on 12 March 1880 – Rivers's sixteenth birthday – he ran in the mile race. The year before this he had been elected as a member of the school debating society, no mean feat for a boy who at this time suffered from a speech impediment which was almost paralytic.
Rivers was set to follow family tradition and take his University of Cambridge entrance exam, possibly with the aim of studying Classics. Unfortunately, his plans were thwarted when, at the age of sixteen, he was struck down by typhoid fever and forced to miss his final year of school. Without the scholarship, his family could not afford to send him to Cambridge but with typical resilience, Rivers did not dwell on the disappointment.
His illness had been a bad one, entailing long convalescence and leaving him with effects which at times severely handicapped him. As L. E. Shore notes: "he was not a strong man, and was often obliged to take a few days rest in bed and subsist on a milk diet". The severity of the sickness and the shattering of dreams might have broken lesser men but for Rivers in many ways the illness was the making of him. Whilst recovering from the fever, Rivers had formed a friendship with one of his father's speech therapy students, a young Army surgeon. His plan was formed: he would study medicine and apply for training in the Army Medical Department, later to become the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Fuelled by this new resolve, Rivers studied medicine at the University of London, where he matriculated in 1882, and St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. He graduated aged just 22, the youngest person to do so until recent times.
Life as a ship's surgeon
After qualifying, Rivers sought to follow his ambition and join the army but was not passed fit. Once again the Typhoid had denied him his dreams. As Elliot Smith was later to write, as quoted in Rivers's biography: "Rivers always had to fight against ill health: heart and blood vessels." Along with the health problems noted by Shore and Elliot Smith, Rivers had been left to the curse of "tiring easily".
His sister Katharine wrote that when he came to visit the family he would often sleep for the first day or two. Astonishingly, considering the work that Rivers did in his relatively short lifetime, Seligman wrote in 1922 that "for many years he seldom worked for more than four hours a day". As Rivers's biographer Richard Slobodin points out, "among persons of extraordinary achievement, only Descartes seems to have put in as short a working day".
As ever, Rivers did not allow his drawbacks to dishearten him", and instead of entering the army his love of travelling lead him to serve several terms as a ship's surgeon, travelling to Japan and North America in 1887. This was the first of many voyages; for, besides his great expeditions for work in the Torres Straits, Melanesia, Egypt, India and the Solomon Islands, he took holiday voyages twice to the West Indies, three times to the Canary Islands and Madeira, to America, to Norway, to Lisbon, as well as numerous visits to France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and to visit family in Australia.
Such voyages helped to improve his health, and possibly to prolong his life. He also took a great deal of pleasures from his experiences aboard ship, particularly when he had the honour of spending a month in the company of George Bernard Shaw; he later described how he spent "many hours every day talking – the greatest treat of my life".
Beginnings of psychological career
Back in England, Rivers gained the distinction of an M.D. (London) and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Soon after, he became house surgeon at the Chichester Infirmary (1887–9) and, although he enjoyed the town and the company of his colleagues, an appointment at Bart's and the opportunity to return to the company of productive researchers in medicine proved too much to resist. He became house physician at St Bartholomew's in 1889 and remained there until 1890.
At Bart's, Rivers had been a physician to Dr. Samuel Gee. Those under Gee were conscious of his indifference towards, if not actual dislike of, the psychological aspects of medicine. As Walter Langdon-Brown surmises, it may have been a reaction against this which led Rivers and his fellow Charles S. Myers to devote themselves to these aspects.
Whatever his motivation, the fact that Rivers's interests lay in neurology and psychology became evident in this period. Reports and papers given by Rivers at the Abernethian Society of St. Bart's indicate a growing specialism in these fields: Delirium and its allied conditions (1889), Hysteria (1891) and Neurasthenia (1893).
Following the direction of his passion for the workings of the mind as it correlates with the workings of the body, in 1891 Rivers became house physician at the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic. It was here that he and Henry Head were to meet and form a lasting friendship.
Rivers's interest in the physiology of the nervous system and in "the mind" that is, in sensory phenomena and mental states, was further stimulated by work in 1891, when he was chosen to be one of Victor Horsley's assistants in the series of investigations which elucidated the existence and nature of electrical currents in the mammalian brain which took place at University College, London. That he was seconded to Horsley for the work is an indication of his growing reputation as a researcher.
In the same year, Rivers joined the Neurological Society of London and presented A Case of Treadler's Cramp to a meeting of the society. The case serves today as a poignant reminder of the cost, to millions of lives, of Britain's industrial supremacy.
Resigning from the National Hospital in 1892, Rivers travelled to Jena to expand his knowledge of experimental psychology. Whilst in Jena, Rivers became fluent in German and attended lectures, not only on psychology but on philosophy as well. He also became deeply immersed in the culture; in a diary he kept of the journey he comments on the buildings, the picture galleries, the church services, and the education system, showing his wide interests and critical judgement. In this diary he also wrote that: "I have during the last three weeks come to the conclusion that I should go in for insanity when I return to England and work as much as possible at psychology."
And "go in for insanity" he did, becoming a Clinical Assistant at the Bethlem Royal Hospital upon his return to England. In 1893, at the request of G. H Savage, he began assisting with lectures in mental diseases at Guy's Hospital, laying special stress on their psychological aspect. At about the same time, due to the bidding of Professor Sully, he began to lecture on experimental psychology at University College, London.
When, in 1893, the unexpected invitation came to lecture in Cambridge on the functions of the sense organs, he was already deeply read in the subject. He had been captivated by Head's accounts of the works of Ewald Hering and had absorbed his views on colour vision and the nature of vital processes in living matter with avidity. However, with typical thoroughness he prepared himself for his new duties by spending the summer working in Heidelberg with Emil Kraepelin on measuring the effects of fatigue.
While it may have come as a surprise to Rivers, the offer of a Cambridge lectureship had come about as part of a long process of evolution within the University's Natural ScienceTripos. Earlier in 1893, Professor McKendrick, of Glasgow, had examined subject and reported unfavourably on the scant knowledge of the special senses displayed by the candidates; it was in reaction to this that Sir Michael Foster, who had seen the potential in this shy, retiring Bart's man, appointed Rivers as a lecturer and he became Fellow Commoner at St John's College forthwith. He was to become a Fellow of the College in 1902.
At first, the appointment proved to be an arduous and exhausting one for Rivers who, at this point, still had ongoing teaching commitments at Guy's hospital and at University College. In addition to these mounting responsibilities, in 1897 he was put in temporary charge of the new psychological laboratory at University College. This was the same year in which Foster assigned him a room in the Physiology Department at Cambridge for use in psychological research. As a result, Rivers is listed in the histories of experimental psychology as simultaneously the director of the first two psychological laboratories in Britain.
In retrospect, it is easy to see the monumental nature of Foster's appointment in lieu of the profound effects Rivers's work would have on Cambridge and indeed in the scientific world in general. However, at the time the Cambridge University Senate were wary of his appointment. As Bartlett writes: "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'!"
The opposition of the Senate, while it was more vocal than serious, was distinctly detrimental to Rivers's efforts since any assistance to his work was very sparingly granted. It was not until 1901, eight years after his appointment, that he was allowed the use of a small cottage for the laboratory, and given thirty-five pounds annually (later, and somewhat begrudgingly, increased to fifty) for purchase and upkeep of equipment. For several years Rivers continued thus, and then, stimulated by him and others, the Moral Science Board stretched out a rather timid and tentative hand again and, in 1903, Rivers and his assistants and students moved to another small building in St Tibbs Row. These working spaces were characterised as being "dismal", "damp, dark and ill-ventilated" but these poor working conditions did not seem to dishearten the Cambridge psychologists. Indeed, the effect was quite the contrary, psychology began to thrive: "perhaps, in the early days of scientific progress, a subject often grows all the more surely if its workers have to meet difficulties, improvise their apparatus, and rub very close shoulders one with another." It was not until 1912 that a well-equipped laboratory was built under the directorship of Charles S. Myers, one of Rivers's earliest and ablest pupils, who was wealthy and able to supplement the University grant with his own funds.
At this point the preoccupations of the Cambridge psychologists and of Rivers were with the special senses: colour vision, optical illusions, sound-reactions and perceptual processes. In these fields, Rivers was rapidly becoming eminent. He was invited to write a chapter on vision for Schäfer's Handbook of Physiology and this contribution, according to Bartlett, "still remains, from a psychological point of view, one of the best in the English Language". In it he set out in a masterly way the work of previous investigators, modestly incorporating his own, and critically examining the rival theories of colour vision, pointing out clearly the importance of psychological factors in, for instance, the phenomena of contrast.
For his own experiments on vision, Rivers worked with two of his graduate medical students, Charles S. Myers and William McDougall who assisted him at this period in a series of experiments on vision and with whom he formed close friendships. Rivers also collaborated with the pioneer instrument maker Sir Horace Darwin in the improvement of apparatus for recording sensations, especially those involved in vision. This collaboration was the basis of a lifelong friendship between Rivers and the genial son of Charles Darwin.
Another important work of this period was an investigation of the influence of tea, coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and a number of other drugs on the capacity for doing work both muscular and mental. For this research he was well fitted after his work under Kraepelin at Heidelberg. A great many of these experiments Rivers made on himself, and for this purpose gave up for a period of two years not only alcoholic beverages and tobacco, which was easy enough for him as he liked neither, but all tea, coffee and cocoa as well. Although the investigation was initially formed with physiological motives in mind, it soon became clear that a strong psychological influence was also involved in the act of taking the substances. Rivers realised that part of the effects- mental and physical- that substances had were caused psychologically by the excitement of knowing that one is indulging. In order, therefore, to eliminate "all possible effects of suggestion, sensory stimulation and interest", Rivers made sure that the substances were disguised from him so that he was not aware, on any given occasion, whether he was taking a drug or a control substance. This was the first experiment of its kind to use this double-blind procedure and, in recognition of this momentous study, Rivers was appointed Croonian Lecturer to the Royal College of Physicians in 1906.
In December 1897 Rivers's achievements were recognised by the University of Cambridge who honoured him with the degree of M.A. honoris causa and, in 1904 with the assistance of Professor James Ward, Rivers made a further mark on the world of psychological sciences, founding and subsequently editing the British Journal of Psychology.
Despite his many successes, Rivers was still a markedly reticent man in mixed company, hampered as he was by his stammer and innate shyness. In 1897, Langdon-Brown invited Rivers 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. In the Cambridge physiological laboratory too he had to lecture to a large elementary class. He was rather nervous about it, and did not like it, his hesitation of speech made his style dry and he had not yet acquired the art of expressing his original ideas in an attractive form, except in private conversation.
Among two or three friends, however, the picture of Rivers is quite different. His conversations were full of interest and illumination; "he was always out to elicit the truth, entirely sincere, and disdainful of mere dialect." His insistence on veracity made him a formidable researcher, as Haddon puts it, "the keynote of Rivers was thoroughness. Keenness of thought and precision marked all his work." His research was distinguished by a fidelity to the demands of experimental method very rare in the realms which he was exploring and, although often overlooked, the work that Rivers did in this early period is of immense import as it formed the foundation of all that came later.
Torres Straits Expedition
Rivers recognised in himself "the desire for change and novelty, which is one of the strongest aspects of my mental makeup" and, while fond of St. John's, the staid lifestyle of his Cambridge existence showed in signs of nervous strain and led him to experience periods of depression.
The turning point came in 1898 when Alfred Cort Haddon seduced "Rivers from the path of virtue... (for psychology then was a chaste science)... into that of anthropology:” He made Rivers first choice to head an expedition to the Torres Straits. Rivers's first reaction was to decline, but he soon agreed on learning that C.S Myers and William McDougall, two of his best former students, would participate. The other members were Sidney Ray, C.G Seligman, and a young Cambridge graduate named Anthony Wilkin, who was asked to accompany the expedition as photographer. In April 1898, the Europeans were transported with gear and apparatus to the Torres Straits. Rivers was said to pack only a small handbag of personal effects for such field trips.
From Thursday Island, several of the party found passage, soaked by rain and waves, on the deck of a crowded 47-foot ketch. In addition to sea sickness, Rivers had been badly sunburnt on his shins and for many days had been quite ill. On 5 May, in a bad storm nearing their first destination of Murray Island, the ship dragged anchor on the Barrier Reef and the expedition almost met disaster Later Rivers recalled the palliative effect of near shipwreck.
When the ketch dropped anchor, Rivers and Ray were at first too ill to go ashore. However the others set up a surgery to treat the native islanders and Rivers, lying in bed next-door tested the patients for colour vision: Haddon's diary noted "He is getting some interesting results.” The warmth shown to the sickly Rivers by the Islanders contributed to strong positive feelings for the work and a deep concern for the welfare of Melanesians during the remainder of his life.”
Rivers's first task was to examine first hand the colour vision of the islanders and compare it to that of Europeans. In the course of his examinations of the visual acuity of the natives, Rivers showed that colour-blindness did not exist or was very rare, but that the colour vision of Papuans was not the same type as that of Europeans; they possessed no word for blue, and an intelligent native found nothing unnatural in applying the same name to the brilliant blue sea or sky and to the deepest black. "Moreover," Head goes on to state in Rivers's obituary notice, "he was able to explode to old fallacy that the 'noble savage' was endowed with powers of vision far exceeding that of civilised natives. Errors of refraction are, it is true, less common, especially myopia. But, altogether the feats of the Torres Straits islanders equalled those reported by travellers from other parts of the world, they were due to the power of attending to minute details in familiar and strictly limited surrounding, and not to supernormal visual acuity."
It was at this point that Rivers began collecting family histories and constructing genealogical tables but at this point his purpose appears to have been more biological than ethnological since such tables seem to have originated as a means of determining whether certain sensory talents or disabilities were hereditary. However, these simple tables soon took on a new prospective.
It was at once evident to Rivers that "the names applied to the various forms of blood relationship did not correspond to those used by Europeans, but belonged to what is known as a 'classificatory system'; a man's 'brothers' or 'sisters' might include individuals we should call cousins and the key to this nomenclature is to be found in forms of social organisation especially in varieties of the institution of marriage." Rivers found that relationship terms were used to imply definite duties, privileges and mutual restrictions in conduct, rather than being biologically based as ours are. As Head puts it: "all these facts were clearly demonstrable by the genealogical method, a triumphant generalisation which has revolutionised ethnology."
The Torres Straits expedition was "revolutionary" in many other respects as well. For the first time, British anthropology had been removed from its "armchair" and placed into a sound empirical basis, providing the model for future anthropologists to follow. In 1916, Sir Arthur Keith stated in an address to the Royal Anthropological Institute, that the expedition had engendered "the most progressive and profitable movement in the history of British anthropology."
While the expedition was clearly productive and, in many ways, arduous for its members, it was also the foundation of lasting friendships. The team would reunite at many points and their paths would frequently converge. Of particular note is the relationship between Rivers and Haddon, the latter of whom regarded the fact he had induced Rivers to come to the Torres Straits as his claim to fame. It cannot be denied that both Rivers and Haddon were serious about their work but at the same time they were imbued with a keen sense of humour and fun. Haddon's diary from Tuesday 16 August reads thus: "Our friends and acquaintances would often be very much amused if they could see us at some of our occupations and I am afraid these would sometimes give occasion to the enemy to blaspheme – so trivial would they appear. Every now and then we then one thing hard- for example one week we were mad on Cat's cradle – at least Rivers, Ray and I were- McDougall soon fell victim and even Myers eventually succumbed."
It may seem to be a bizarre occupation for a group of highly qualified men of science, indeed, as Haddon states: "I can imagine that some people would think we were demented – or at least wasting our time." However, both Haddon and Rivers were to use the string trick to scientific ends and they are also credited as inventing a system of nomenclature that enabled them to be able to schematise the steps required and teach a variety of string tricks to European audiences.
The expedition ended in October 1898 and Rivers returned to England.” In 1900, Rivers joined Myers and Wilkin in Egypt to run tests on the colour vision of the Egyptians; this was the last time he saw Wilkin, who died of dysentery in May 1901, aged 24.
Rivers had already formed a career in physiology and psychology. But now he moved more definitively into anthropology. He wanted a demographically small, fairly isolated people, comparable to the island societies of the Torres Strait, where he might be able to get genealogical data on each and every individual. The Todas in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India, with their population then about 700 plus, suited Rivers’s criteria. And they had specific features of social organization, such as polyandrous marriage and a bifurcation of their society into so-called moieties that had interested historical evolutionists. Whether his fieldwork was initially so single-minded is questionable, however, since at first he looked at other local communities and studied their visual perception before fixing all his attention on the Todas.
Rivers worked among the Todas for less than six months during 1901-02, communicating with his Toda informants only through interpreters and lodged in an Ootacamund hotel. Yet he assembled a stunning collection of data on the ritual and social lives of the Toda people. Almost all who have subsequently studied the Todas have been amazed at the richness and the accuracy of Rivers’s data. His book, "The Todas", which came out in 1906, is still an outstanding contribution to Indian ethnography, “indispensable: still only to be supplemented rather than superseded”, as Murray Emeneau wrote in 1971. And it is little wonder that so famous a champion of anthropological fieldwork as Dr Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) declared Rivers to be his “patron saint of field work”.
In the preface to this book Rivers wrote that his work was “not merely the record of the customs and beliefs of a people, but also the demonstration of anthropological method”. That method is the collection of genealogical materials for the purpose of more fully investigating other aspects of social life, notably ritual.
The first eleven chapters of "The Todas" represented in 1906 a novel approach to the presentation of ethnographic data, one that, under the influence of Malinowski, would later become a standard practice in British social anthropology. This is the analysis of a people’s society and culture by presentation of a detailed description of a particularly significant institution. In the Toda case, it is the sacred dairy cult. But Rivers is unable to sustain this focus throughout the work, so after a brilliant opening, the book tails off somewhat. We get a good idea of the Toda dairies and the ideas of ritual purity that protect them; but then the author returns to the ready-made categories of the day: gods, magic, kinship, clanship, crime and so on, and says no more about the dairies. Moreover, he failed to discover the existence of matrilineal clans alongside the patrilineal ones. A second, and more important, limitation of his study is its failure to view Toda society as a local and specialized variant of—as A.L. Kroeber wrote—“higher Indian culture”. Rivers’s book has been largely responsible for the view (now not infrequently held by educated Todas themselves) that these are a people quite distinct from other South Indians.
When, in 1902, Rivers left the Nilgiri Hills and India too, he would never return. Moreover, after the publication of "The Todas" he wrote very little more about them.
"A Human Experiment in Nerve Division"
Upon his return to England from the Torres Strait, Rivers became aware of a series of experiments being conducted by his old friend Henry Head in conjunction with James Sherren, a surgeon at the London Hospital where they both worked. Since 1901, the pair had been forming a systematic study of nerve injuries among patients attending the hospital. Rivers, who had long been interested in the physiological consequences of nerve division, was quick to take on the role of "guide and counsellor".
It quickly became clear to Rivers, looking in on the experiment from a psycho-physical aspect, that the only way accurate results could be obtained from introspection on behalf of the patient is if the subject under investigation was himself a trained observer, sufficiently discriminative to realise if his introspection was being prejudiced by external irrelevancies or moulded by the form of the experimenter's questions, and sufficiently detached to lead a life of detachment throughout the entire course of the tests. It was in the belief that he could fulfil these requirements, that Head himself volunteered to act, as Langham puts it, "as Rivers's experimental guinea-pig."
So it was that, on 25 April 1903, the radial and external cutaneous nerves of Henry Head's arm were severed and sutured. Rivers was then to take on the role of examiner and chart the regeneration of the nerves, considering the structure and functions of the nervous system from an evolutionary standpoint through a series of "precise and untiring observations" over a period of five years.
At first observation, the day after the operation, the back of Head's hand and the dorsal surface of his thumb were seen to be "completely insensitive to stimulation with cotton wool, to pricking with a pin, and to all degrees of heat and cold." While cutaneous sensibility had ceased, deep sensibility was maintained so that pressure with a finger, a pencil or with any blunt object was appreciated without hesitation.
So that the distractions of a busy life should not interfere with Head's introspective analysis, it was decided that the experimentation should take place in Rivers's rooms. Here, as Head states, "for five happy years we worked together on week-ends and holidays in the quiet atmosphere of his rooms at St. John's College." In the normal course of events, Head would travel to Cambridge on Saturday, after spending several hours on the outpatient department of the London Hospital. On these occasions, however, he would find that he was simply too exhausted to work on the Saturday evening so experimentation would have to be withheld until the Sunday. If, therefore, a long series of tests were to be carried out, Head would come to Cambridge on the Friday, returning to London on Monday morning. At some points, usually during Rivers's vacation period, longer periods could be devoted to the observations. Between the date of the operation and their last sitting on 13 December 1907, 167 days were devoted to the investigation.
Since Head was simultaneously collaborator and experimental subject, extensive precautions were taken to make sure that no outside factors influenced his subjective appreciation of what he was perceiving: "No questions were asked until the termination of a series of events; for we found it was scarcely possible... to ask even simple questions without giving a suggestion either for or against the right answer... The clinking of ice against the glass, the removal of the kettle from the hob, tended to prejudice his answers... [Rivers] was therefore particularly careful to make all his preparations beforehand; the iced tubes were filled and jugs of hot and cold water ranged within easy reach of his hand, so that the water of the temperature required might be mixed silently."
Moreover, although before each series of tests Head and Rivers would discuss their plan of action, Rivers was careful to vary this order to such an extent during the actual testing that Head would be unable to tell what was coming next.
Gradually during the course of the investigation, certain isolated spots of cutaneous sensibility began to appear; these spots were sensitive to heat, cold and pressure. However, the spaces between these spots remained insensitive at first, unless sensations- such as heat or cold- reached above a certain threshold at which point the feeling evoked was unpleasant and usually perceived as being "more painful" than it was if the same stimulus was applied to Head's unaffected arm. Also, although the sensitive spots were quite definitely localised, Head, who sat through the tests with his eyes closed, was unable to gain any exact appreciation of the locus of stimulation. Quite the contrary, the sensations radiated widely, and Head tended to refer them to places remote from the actual point of stimulation.
This was the first stage of the recovery process and Head and Rivers dubbed it the "protopathic", taking its origins from the Middle Greek word protopathes, meaning "first affected". This protopathic stage seemed to be marked by an "all-or-nothing" aspect since there was either an inordinate response to sensation when compared with normal reaction or no reaction whatever if the stimulation was below the threshold.
Finally, when Head was able to distinguish between different temperatures and sensations below the threshold, and when he could recognise when two compass points were applied simultaneously to the skin, Head's arm began to enter the second stage of recovery. They named this stage the "epicritic", from the Greek epikritikos, meaning "determinative".
From an evolutionary perspective, it soon became clear to Rivers that the epicritic nervous reaction was the superior, as it suppressed and abolished all protopathic sensibility. This, Rivers found, was the case in all parts of the skin of the male anatomy except one area where protopathic sensibility is unimpeded by epicritic impulses: the glans penis. As Langham points out, with special references to "Rivers's reputed sexual proclivities", it is at this point that the experiment takes on an almost farcical aspect to the casual reader. It may not seem surprising to us that when Rivers was to apply a needle to a particularly sensitive part of the glans that "pain appeared and was so excessively unpleasant that [Head] cried out and started away"; indeed, such a test could be seen as a futility verging on the masochistic. Nor would we necessarily equate the following passage with what one might normally find in a scientific text:
"The foreskin was drawn back, and the penis allowed to hang downwards. A number of drinking glasses were prepared containing water at different temperatures. [Head] stood with his eyes closed, and [Rivers] gradually approached one of the glasses until the surface of the water covered the glans but did not touch the foreskin. Contact with the fluid was not appreciated; if, therefore, the temperature of the water was such that it did not produce a sensation of heat or cold, Head was unaware that anything had been done."
However, the investigations, bizarre as they may seem, did have a sound scientific basis since Rivers especially was looking at the protopathic and epicritic from an evolutionary perspective. From this standpoint it is intensely interesting to note that the male anatomy maintains one area which is "unevolved" in so much as it is "associated with a more primitive form of sensibility". Using this information about the protopathic areas of the human body, Rivers and Head then began to explore elements of man's psyche. One way in which they did this was to examine the "pilomoter reflex" (the erection of hairs). Head and Rivers noted that the thrill evoked by aesthetic pleasure is "accompanied by the erection of hairs" and they noted that this reaction was no greater in the area of skin with protopathic sensibility than it was in the area of the more evolved epicritic, making it a purely psychologically based phenomena. As Langham puts it: "The image of a man reading a poem to evoke aesthetic pleasure while a close friend meticulously studies the erection of his hairs may seem ludicrous. However, it provides a neat encapsulation of Rivers's desire to subject possibly protopathic phenomena to the discipline of rigorous investigation."
Pre-war psychological work
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 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. Charles Samuel Myers, and now held only a lectureship on the physiology of the special senses. By degrees he became more absorbed in anthropological research. But though he was now an ethnologist rather than a 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 vigour and vitality by his constant contact with the actual daily behaviour of human beings.
During 1907–8 Rivers travelled to the Solomon Islands, and other areas of Melanesia and Polynesia. His two-volume History of Melanesian Society (1914), which he dedicated to St Johns, presented a diffusionist thesis for the development of culture in the south-west Pacific. In the year of publication he made a second journey to Melanesia, returning to England in March 1915, to find that war had broken out.
The Great War
When Rivers returned to England in Spring 1915, he had trouble at first finding a place for himself in the war effort. Following the footsteps of his former student—the current director of the Cambridge Psychology Laboratory—C.S. Myers, the 51-year-old W.H.R. Rivers signed up to serve as a civilian physician at the Maghull Military Hospital near Liverpool. Upon his arrival in July 1915, Rivers was appointed as a psychiatrist and thus he re-entered into the study of "insanity."
"Insanity" in this case entailed working with soldiers who had been diagnosed as suffering from any of a wide range of symptoms, which were collectively referred to as "shell shock." These soldiers were known to demonstrate symptoms such as temporary blindness, memory loss, paralysis, and uncontrollable crying. As such, by the time W.H.R. Rivers was assigned to Maghull War Hospital, it was known as the “centre for abnormal psychology,” and many of its physicians were employing techniques such as dream interpretation, psychoanalysis and hypnosis to treat shell shock, also known as the war neuroses.
Rivers himself was a well-read psychologist and so was already quite familiar with Freud, Jung, and other psychoanalysts. In fact, Rivers was quite sympathetic to some of Freud’s ideas. As such, Rivers joined the band of doctors at Maghull who devoted themselves to understanding the origins and treatment of the “war neuroses” under the guidance of R.G. Rows.
After about a year of service at Maghull War Hospital, Rivers was appointed a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and his two youthful dreams—to be an army doctor and to “go in for insanity”—were realized when he was transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, Scotland in order to help “clean house” following a scandal. There, Rivers treated officers who had been diagnosed with “shell shock,” and he also began formulating his theory regarding the origin and treatment of the war neuroses.
|“||Rivers, by pursuing a course of humane treatment, had established two principles that would be embraced by American military psychiatrists in the next war. He had demonstrated, first, that men of unquestioned bravery could succumb to overwhelming fear and, second, that the most effective motivation to overcome that fear was something stronger than patriotism, abstract principles, or hatred of the enemy. It was the love of soldiers for one another.||”|
Henry Head and W.H.R Rivers experimenting in Rivers's rooms (1903–1907)