On this Remembrance Sunday, I am remembering a man who was ahead of his time in the care and understanding of those with mental illness. W. H. R. Rivers was an anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist, known, amongst other things, for treating World War I soldiers suffering from shell-shock – what we would now call a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rivers’ war-time work at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, and his meeting with the poets Siegfried Sassoon (with whom he developed a life-long friendship) and Wilfred Owen, have been fictionalised in Pat Barker’s well-known and award-winning ‘Regeneration Trilogy’. But Dr Rivers stands out not because he had the good fortune to encounter and treat two of the greatest war poets that have ever lived: but because he was a pioneer in his field (by applying psychoanalysis to soldiers suffering from neurosis as a result of war experiences); and because he defied the beliefs and treatments of his time. At a time when shell-shock was considered ‘not a real illness’, and the only ‘cure’ was electroschock therapy (described by another war poet, Ivor Gurney, in the post-war period – see my previous post ‘Strange Hells – Remembrance Sunday‘), he instead encouraged his patients to talk about their experiences and their emotions.
After the war, Rivers returned to Cambridge, where he had previously held a lectureship. He died on 4 June 1922, and his ashes now rest in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.
As testament to his legacy of compassion and treating everyone as individuals, the author and poet Robert Graves (though not himself a ‘patient’) wrote after Rivers’ death of the peace and security he felt in Rivers’ rooms – a feeling many of those in a trusting therapeutic relationship, will know:
“….The ground held firmly; I was no more dumb.
For that was the place where I longed to be
And past all hope where the kind lamp shone
The carpet was holy that my feet were on….
…..The cushions were friendship and the chairs were love…”