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William Halse Rivers (1864-1922)

William Rivers was born in Kent in 1864. He attended the University of London and graduated in medicine in 1886. At 22 he was one of the youngest people to do so. Rivers is sometimes remembered for his participation in the anthropological expedition to the Torres Straits in Australia in 1898, and his work on the subject of kinship. However, he is best known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War.

In contrast to Lewis Yealland, William Rivers adopted a different type of therapy for the shell-shocked soldiers that he treated during the First World War. Rivers did not agree with the ‘stiff upper lip’ that soldiers were supposed to demonstrate in the battlefield. He wanted the soldiers to talk about their experiences and face their fear and the horror of what had happened to them. He developed the ‘talking cure’ with his patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers near Edinburgh.

Rivers’ most famous patient was the poet Siegfried Sassoon. He conducted three sessions a week with Sassoon, in which he also tried to get him to return to the battle front. Rivers considered shell shock to be an illness and treated all of his patients as individuals who needed special care. He also had ethical concerns about his role - he felt that curing patients was problematic when they would be returned to the front line, where he believed they would be in danger of having another breakdown.


P Leese, Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002)

B Shepard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century (London; Jonathan Cape, 2000)