Wilfred Trotter

Wilfred TrotterWilfred Trotter (1872 – 1939)

Wilfred Trotter had a distinguished medical career based chiefly at University College Hospital. He became the greatest surgeon of his day in Britain. He specialised in cancers of the neck and head and was a pioneer in neurosurgery. He saved the life of George V. He also served on the Councils of the Royal Society, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Medical Research Council. The Collected Papers of Wilfred Trotter, published in 1941, consists of his medical addresses.

In his thirties, Trotter made a major contribution to social psychology in his emphasis on “the herd instinct”. He was the first to study the psychology of animals, arguing that gregariousness was an instinct. This was not an entirely new idea then but it was accepted only after many years. He showed that belonging to a herd made for homogeneity, so that many members could act as one. In exploring three types of gregariousness, in a beehive, a flock of sheep and a wolf pack, he suggested that there were implications for humanity. The individual could only function satisfactorily, he thought, through a full interaction with his herd.

However, Trotter distinguished two very different types of people, ‘resistive’ (the conservative majority which maintain the status quo) and ‘sensitive’ (the radical minority open to change). These two often found themselves in conflict. Unless mankind developed some way of reconciling these differences disaster would result. But if some conscious resolution occurred, the human group might find its full potential, a multifaceted unified state – multimentality. These ideas were first published in vols. 1 and 2 of the Sociological Review, 1908 and 1909, and later reprinted with more material in 1914 as The lnstincts of the Herd in Peace and War.