Trotter, Wilfred

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Trotter, Wilfred



Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter (1872-1939) was born at Coleford in Gloucestershire, England, and entered University College, London, as a medical student in 1908. He became a distinguished surgeon and teacher of surgery. His most important research in the field of surgery was a repetition of Sir Henry Head’s experiment on the restoration of cutaneous sensibility after section of a sensory nerve fiber. In this experiment he reached conclusions somewhat different from those of Head. In 1931 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1935 he became professor of surgery in University College Hospital.

Trotter’s claim to fame, however, does not rest principally on his distinction as a surgeon. He became known to the world outside medicine in 1916, when he published a book entitled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. This book aroused much interest and exerted a widespread influence on both social scientists and the general public.

Social science was not at this time a new interest to Trotter; in 1908 and 1909 he had already published two articles on this subject, which, in 1916, became the first two chapters of his book. The end of World War i led to the issue of a new edition that included an illuminating section on prejudice (see especially pages 173-180, “Postscript of 1919” in 1953 edition). In the year before his death, the imminence of World War n led him to write the press two letters which showed that his interest in social science and its application to practical social problems had not ceased.

The essence of Trotter’s thought was that there is a herd instinct leading animals to congregate and determining their behavior with respect to their own kind, that the nature of this herd instinct can be revealed by studying the gregarious animals, and that, since man also is a gregarious animal, his behavior can be predicted and controlled by means of the knowledge so gained.

In the years immediately following its publication, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War was widely read, discussed, and quoted, but it has had little lasting influence. Its immediate success may have resulted not only from its real merits of bold thinking and forceful presentation, but also from its topicality and the hope it held out for a rational and scientific approach to the problems that led to wars. Since that time, however, the development of the social sciences has followed lines other than those envisaged by Trotter. Instead of speculating about the instinctive basis of social behavior, social scientists now make actual studies of the behavior of groups. Trotter’s book, read now, seems oddly speculative and remote from any systematic social observation and unduly colored by the author’s own prejudices.

These factors have dated his book, yet Trotter has a real claim to be considered one of the pioneers of scientific social study. He was important as one of the first to realize the necessity of providing a scientific basis for the understanding of social facts. He may well have been mistaken in what he chose as the appropriate road to this goal; he was surely right in emphasizing the importance of the goal. In that emphasis lies the contribution for which he deserves to be remembered.

R. H. Thouless

[See also Collective Behavior.]


1908 Herd Instinct and Its Bearing on the Psychology of Civilised Man. Sociological Review 1:227-248.

1909 Sociological Application of the Psychology of Herd Instinct. Sociological Review 2:36-54.

(1916) 1953 Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War: 1916-1919. Edited by R. W. Chapman. New York: Macmillan. → First published as Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.

1942 Collected Papers. Oxford Univ. Press.


Elliott, T. R. 1941 Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter: 1872-1939. Royal Society of London, Obituary Notices of Fellows 3:325-344. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.