Lives of the fellows

Arthur Espie, Baron Porritt of Wanganui, New Zealand and of Hampstead Porritt

b.10 August 1900 d.1 January 1994
GCVO( 1970) GCMG( 1967) Bt(1963) KCVO(1957) KCMG(1950) CBE(1945) OBE(1943) BA Oxon(1926) BM BCh(1928) MRCS LRCP(1928) FRCS(1930) MA(1933) Hon LLD St And(1950) Hon LLD NZ(1961) Hon MD Bristol(1961) Hon DSc Oxon(1963) FRCP(1967) Hon FRACS Hon FRCS Edin Hon FACS Hon FRCS Glasg Hon FRCSC Hon FCS (Saf) Hon FRCSI Hon FRACP Hon FRCOG Hon FRACR Hon LLD Birm Hon LLD Otago

Arthur Porritt was born in Wanganui, New Zealand, the son of Ernest Edward Porritt, a medical practitioner, and his wife Ivy Elizabeth (née McKenzie), a Scottish nursing sister. He was educated at Wanganui Collegiate School and the University of New Zealand, Otago, before being awarded a Rhodes scholarship which took him to Magdalen College, Oxford. He completed the clinical part of his undergraduate studies at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. His professional career began as a house surgeon at St Mary's under the senior surgeon, V W Low, who was at that time a vice-president of the Royal College of Surgeons. Later Porritt became a surgical registrar and his career blossomed under the tutelage of Charles Pannett, the first professor of surgery at St Mary’s, to whom his gratitude was lifelong. He was appointed consultant surgeon in 1936, a position he held until his retirement in 1965. By that time he had also held consultant appointments at many other hospitals, including the Royal Chelsea, the Royal Masonic, King Edward VII, Princess Louise, and St John and Elizabeth.

When he arrived at Oxford, at the age of 23, he was dismayed to find that the pre-clinical course he had completed at Otago counted for nothing. He had to start all over again with preliminary courses in physics, chemistry and biology. Although this was somewhat of a blow to him, it can be seen with hindsight to have had a profoundly beneficial effect on his whole career. As he had already attained considerable proficiency in these subjects in New Zealand, he had time to devote himself to assimilating all that Oxford life had to offer, particularly in sports and athletics. Having excelled in New Zealand as a natural sprinter and a free scoring rugby three-quarter, he was able to expand his abilities and his achievements are legendary. He established university records in the 100 yards, 120 yards hurdles and 220 yards hurdles. His 1925 Oxford v Cambridge 100 yards victory in 9.9 seconds stood as a record for this annual event for the next 37 years. He was elected president of the Oxford Athletic Club from 1925 to 1926, but his greatest triumph was undoubtedly his achievement in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Not only did he win through three heats against the world’s finest sprinters but in the final, against all odds, he finished in third place. For the rest of his life, to his perplexed amusement, he was most widely remembered for winning the bronze medal in the 100 metres - a race subsequently immortalized in the film Chariots of fire. He never lost his interest in athletics, becoming a member of the International Olympic Committee and chairman of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Whether or not he was gregarious when he entered Oxford he certainly was by the time he left. The countless friendships he forged during those three years proved to be remarkably enduring. One of his great gifts was a genuine love of people. In later years he referred to strangers as "…friends one had not met…" and this attitude was aptly described at his memorial service by his son, "… when he was with you he was with you entirely, never on the way to someone else".

Being obliged to repeat pre-clinical studies of basic sciences may have also contributed to his surgical success. Exposure to teachers in New Zealand as well as Oxford probably sharpened his own skills in communication. He was described by Felix Eastcott, once a pupil and later a friend and colleague, as a superb teacher whose rounds were never missed by undergraduates. J P Williams, once his house surgeon and later his senior registrar, believed that of all his activities in medicine Porritt loved none more than undergraduate teaching. His aim was to teach doctors to be observant, caring, courteous and sensible, and as a bedside teacher of great repute he unfailingly demonstrated these attributes. In 1938, in collaboration with R M Handfield-Jones, his book The essentials of modern surgery (Edinburgh, E&S Livingstone) was published and in the preface one can detect the influence of the youthful Porritt’s enforced double ration of pre-clinical studies, a reference to the need for surgical teaching to be based "… on the fundamental principles of anatomy, physiology and pathology. It is only by building on sound foundations that men can be taught to think for themselves and to avoid falling into the deplorable habit of subjecting every patient to countless laboratory investigations without making even some small effort to arrive at a diagnosis on clinical grounds".

It should not be forgotten that his contributions to practical surgery, apart from teaching, were considerable: he courageously insisted on minimizing breast surgery at a time when radical mastectomy was in vogue and he was equally resolute in his adherence to this principle in his treatment of iguinal hernia.

Porritt’s appointment as surgeon to the Duke of York, later to become King George VI, was followed after the abdication of Edward VIII by that of surgeon to the Royal Household and, ultimately, to the position of sergeant-surgeon to HM The Queen in 1953, a duty he discharged until 1967. Like many a colonial before him, Arthur Porritt was a fervent royalist and recollections of royal occasions, such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, were among his most treasured memories.

The advent of war interrupted his career, but there were further pinnacles of achievement ahead. He narrowly escaped from France during the retreat of the BEF in 1940, being picked up at dawn on the beach at Quiberon while unaware that France had surrendered to Germany 12 hours previously. Some six months later, as a lieutenant colonel, he was posted to the Middle East as officer in charge of the surgical division of No 2 General Hospital. The nine week sea journey, in a convoy of 34 ships, included a game of deck tennis during which he met Kay Peck, a young nursing sister who was to become his wife six years later. They had three children, Joanna, Jonathon and Jeremy. Kay became his close companion and inspiration and anyone who knew the Porritts would be unlikely to underestimate her contribution to his career.

After a year at No 2 General Hospital, based at Quassassin, Porritt was posted back to Britain and was subsequently informed of his appointment as consulting surgeon to 21 Army Group, later to become the British Liberation Army North-West Europe, and of his promotion to brigadier. The next six months were spent in preparation for Operation Overlord. Of the 150 surgeons under his command, 16 were chosen to man the surgical beach assault stations on D-Day. Forbidden by the director of medical services to accompany them Porritt reiterated his plea to the commander in chief, Montomgery, and was eventually granted permission -landing on the beach at Arromanches on foot and waist-deep in water. Throughout the Normandy campaign he made a point of regularly visiting surgeons in the forward areas and lending a surgical hand when possible. One of the fruitful results of his service in Normandy was the friendships he made with his American and Canadian counterparts. This led to the development of peacetime links between surgical institutions in Britain, the USA and Canada. Of particular satisfaction to Porritt was the creation of an annual exchange fellowship between St Mary’s and the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston.

After the war, although Porritt’s surgical life was centred on St Mary’s and his private practice in Wimpole Street, he became progressively more involved in committee work, and in the administrative aspects of athletics and medicine, especially with the birth of the NHS. He was committed to the provision of a free health service for all and it was only the economics of implementation that raised his doubts as to its achievement. The New Zealand government had made the attempt but had been forced to admit the impracticability. In Britain the mistake was to be repeated on the erroneous premise that universal provision of health care would lead to reduction in the need for health services. Porritt was enormously intrigued by advances in medical science, being an avid supporter of biological research, for new developments in surgical technique, equipment and pharmacological innovation. He was saddened by the erosion of the ‘doctor-patient relationship’ which he attributed to the capitation system for general practice, deploring the insidious infiltration of materialism and commercialism.

He was elected to the council of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1950, the year in which he chaired the Empire Games in Auckland and in which he received his knighthood. Ten years later he was chosen to be president. His tenure was marked by buoyant growth and activitiy; the college research departments flourished, many new training and research posts were established, international conferences were held and a general air of enthusiasm and optimism pervaded the institution. It was in no small part attributable to the president’s influence, for despite his many activities a day seldom passed without his presence. He was also president of the BMA during the first year of his college presidency. As chairman of the medical services review committee of the BMA he supervised what came to be known as the Porritt report. Some of its recommendations found their way into the 1974 reorganization of the NHS, but only a year later Porritt warned that clinical staff were being outnumbered by administrators and that a ‘bureaucratic monolith’ would result.

While at the Royal College, Porritt became increasingly interested in the life of John Hunter. He was concerned with plans for rebuilding the museum and during the tenure of his presidency the present Hunterian Museum was opened. His pride in the collection and the new accommodation he had helped to plan was manifest. The depth of his admiration was revealed in his Hunterian oration of 1967 entitled ‘John Hunter: distant echoes’, in which he paid close attention to Hunter’s friendships and their significance, and disclosed his fascination for the Antipodean specimens in Hunter’s collection. He dwelt on the voyage of The Endeavour and linked it with the overseas activities of the college, encouraging their expansion. No doubt with his own wife and daughter in mind, he composed the memorable Hunterian Society oration ‘John Hunter’s women’, drawing attention to Anne Hunter’s accomplishments. As president, he joined the board of trustees of the Hunterian collection for three years. He later rejoined the board as an elected member, in which capacity he served for 30 years with dignity, distinction and unflagging concern for the preservation of the collection and the Hunterian tradition. In his last years, although his mind remained acute, he was inhibited in committee by increasing deafness, a disability which quietly infuriated him. Although he was still able to enjoy a one-to-one conversation and debate, he was frustrated by being unable to cope with voices from different directions. This did not, however, prevent him from making unique contributions in the form of handwritten memoranda to the board of trustees, even at a time when he was frail and bedridden.

His career reached its apogee with his appointment as governor general of New Zealand. It would be difficult to imagine any appointment which could have given him greater delight. Above all else he would, for the next five years, be the direct representative of the monarch. This was the first time a native born New Zealander had risen to become head of state and the first time a surgeon had occupied that position. There was the daily exposure to public scrutiny and a considerable administrative burden had to be discharged, and Porritt’s wide administrative experience in athletic and medical spheres stood him in good stead. His five years were for him a wonderful homecoming and one which gave him intense pleasure. Back in England, he was awarded a peerage and took his seat on the cross benches of the House of Lords. Free of party affiliations, he was able to participate in debates on the issues of the day. He was deeply involved, but it has to be said that his contentment was not unalloyed. He deplored the invasion of materialism into his two great interests, medicine and athletics. To him the Olympic ideal was inseparable from amateurism and it was obscene to allow commercialism to supplant the ideal of service in the practice of medicine. He was saddened to see that the bright light of humanism, so integral a part of his medical education, was flickering to the point of extinction.

Porritt was a tall and handsome man, with a commanding presence, infalliably courteous, with a ready smile, a measure of youthful vitality which never left him and a fresh rose daily in his buttonhole. In the last weeks of his life his strength dwindled until he was confined to his bed. But he insisted that old age was not the time for fading dreams and melancholy and he enjoyed watching rugby into his 90s, as much as he had revelled in playing when a student. He died, as he would have wished, in his own home with his wife and three children at his bedside.

B Cohen

[, 1994,308,197; Times, 4 Jan 1994; The Independent, 4 Jan 1994; The Guardian, 4 Jan 1994; The Daily Telegraph, 3 Jan 1994]

(Volume X, page 388)

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