Lives of the fellows

Arthur Digby Porter

b.27 June 1897 d.29 August 1991
MRCS LRCP(1920) MA MB BChir Cantab(1924) MRCP(1926) MD(1929) FRCP(1956)

Arthur Porter was born in Bray, Co Wicklow, though the family home - Clogher Park, Co Tyrone, was in Northern Ireland. Formerly a bishop’s palace it had been in the Porter family for over a hundred years. His father, a naval officer, on retirement became a civil servant. The family of four sisters and one brother lived in a semi-feudal family style, characteristic of the Anglo-Irish middle classes at this period. Arthur was very much a country boy. He and his brother spent much time shooting, fishing (which was to become his lifelong passion) and killing the rats which abounded in the cellars of their old home. It was a house of great interest, with a garden gate leading to the cathedral precincts. Governesses for the girls came and went and there seemed to be a succession of house parties in what must have been a hospitable home as visitors might stay as long as a month. One guest spent his time painting Arthur and the other children on the ceiling above the stairwell; these remain to this day.

He was educated at Mourne Grange, a boarding preparatory school in Ireland and went on to Rugby, which he did not enjoy. From Rugby he went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, reading zoology and obtaining an honours degree in the Tripos. Thence he decided on medicine and winning the Burney-Yeo scholarship at King’s College Hospital medical school did his pre-clinical and clinical studies there. After qualification and a variety of house jobs at King’s he decided to try a maritime life as ship’s surgeon and for a time travelled with the P&O. But it seems that medicine, rather than general practice, attracted him and he obtained his membership of the College in 1926.

He was registrar at the Royal Hospital for Women and Children and later assistant physician to the Evelina and St Mary’s Hospital, Plaistow. This was followed by a spell as clinical assistant at the Brompton Hospital where he met T A Nelson, a paediatrician, and they collaborated on a joint paper ‘Protein in Asthma’ published in The Lancet, 1931, ii, p.1342. For a time he had a leaning towards paediatrics and had consulting rooms in Harley Street for four years. In 1934 he was appointed physician to the Southend General Hospital, so moved his home from London to Hickley in Essex. His health was to play havoc with his professional life, repeated and severe haematemeses necessitated many hospital admissions and a lifetime on the Sippy diet. He gave up his appointment at Southend in 1938 and moved his home to Great Easton, near Dunmow, Essex.

Quite when his thoughts turned to dermatology is uncertain but with his breadth of general medical knowledge, and his past opportunity to study some of the paediatric skin patients under the care of Arthur Whitfield [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IV,p.470] at King’s, he successfully applied for a consultant post at St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin where he was appointed in 1939. His health, of course, precluded any military service which, for a first cousin of Lord Alanbrooke, must have been hard to swallow.

His interest in metabolism when doing paediatrics had stimulated his thinking about diet and nutritional factors such as hypo- and hyper-vitaminosis A in some particular skin affections. He studied Darier’s Disease and a number of other genetically determined abnormalities from this point of view. In 1954 he published his observations on a case of solar urticaria [Brit. J.Dermat.,66:417-428] and it was this study which prompted him to delve into the intricacies of photo-testing the skin so as to identify abnormal reactions. Liaison with the Kodak laboratories at Ilford led him to various physicists at Imperial College and thence to W D Wright. The first monochromator at St John’s, and the subsequent development of photobiology at the Institute of Dermatology was entirely due to Porter’s insight, enthusiasm and indeed tenacity. Now precise wave bands can be selected for skin testing and photodermatology has developed as a sub-specialty in its own right.

Arthur was in every way a gentle man, quiet and not gregarious. He did not fraternize with his colleagues readily; a shyness perhaps for he was not aloof. Having been a martyr to his stomach for so many years he lived at a gentle tempo. He was happily married to a beautiful White Russian and claimed to have been the only Northern Irish doctor so privileged. They met when she came to his parent’s home with a young Roman Catholic seminarian. She was working in Paris as a model, having left her home and parents in a village in the deep forest about 100 miles from Minsk. Leaving Russia via Manchuria in 1923, she stayed with a Japanese family near Tokyo for two years, finally ending up with thousands of other White Russian refugees in Paris. They were married in the old Russian Orthodox Church in Paris, with its elaborate ceremonial so far removed from the Protestant tradition of Northern Ireland.

Always an enthusiastic salmon fisherman, for many years he also enjoyed his cottage in Mull. He admitted that when fishing in a roaring torrent, wearing thigh waders and coping with a rocky, irregular river bed, his heart would sing with exhilaration and then he was able totally to forego his dietary restrictions and could happily drink whisky with the best - with no ill effects.

When he retired he moved from Essex, and the threat of London’s third airport at Stansted, to Somerset where he and his wife lived very happily at Lamyatt, near Shepton Mallet. Sadly, she was to die before him. During his last years he remained mobile to the end and was much loved in the village, where a packed congregation at his funeral testified to the respect in which he was held. He had two sons, one a solicitor, and one daughter. He was a man who, in spite of his appalling health, had the fortitude to make a satisfactory life for himself and without doubt his contribution to dermatology merited greater recognition than is generally accorded.

S C Gold

[Brit.J.Derm., 1992,127,60-61]

(Volume IX, page 428)

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