Lives of the fellows

Roy Sydney Porter

b.31 December 1946 d.3 March 2002
BA Cantab(1968) MA(1970) PhD(1974) FBA(1994) Hon FRCP(1998) FMedSci(2001) Hon FRCPsych

Roy Porter was one of, if not the, most distinguished medical historians of his generation. He was certainly the most prolific, writing or editing over 100 books in his lifetime and leaving the manuscripts of a further three that were published posthumously. Trained as a historian, his doctoral work on the history of geology directed him towards the history of science and medicine, subjects he interpreted in wide cultural contexts, some of his most famous works including histories of psychiatry, gout, London and the Enlightenment, and including a magisterial history of medicine in The greatest benefit to mankind: a medical history of humanity from antiquity to the present (London, Harper Collins, 1997).

Born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Roy Sydney Porter grew up as an only child in New Cross Gate, south London “a stable if shabby working class community completely undiscovered by sociologists”, as he described it in London, a social history (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1994). After an indifferent primary education, he won a scholarship to Wilson’s School in Camberwell, where an enlightened English teacher, David Rees, took a special interest in the academic development of the bright, intellectually precocious boy and introduced him to the theatre, poetry and travel.

Porter went on a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he read history and came under the influence of (Sir) Jack H Plumb, the noted scholar of the eighteenth century, and the historian of ideas, Quentin Skinner, and where his contemporaries included David Cannadine, Linda Colley, John Brewer and Simon Schama. After achieving a starred double first, Porter stayed at Christ’s, completing his PhD and serving as a junior research fellow. Moving to Churchill College, Cambridge, as director of studies in history in 1972, he became dean in 1977.

But he felt increasingly ill at ease in what he felt was the somewhat claustrophobic academic atmosphere of Cambridge and in 1979 he accepted a position in the fledgling academic unit of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. There he joined W (Bill) Bynum and Vivian Nutton in making the Wellcome Institute the preeminent centre for the history of medicine in the world. From 1979 until his early retirement in 2001, Porter was a powerhouse of ideas. He taught, supervised and inspired numerous undergraduate and postgraduate students from University College London, with which the Wellcome Institute was academically linked. He lectured nationally and internationally at a ferocious rate. He was a regular broadcaster on radio and television and became the well-recognised public face of medical history. And he wrote, wrote and then he wrote some more. Books, chapters, articles, reviews, opinion pieces and interviews all flooded from his pen, or more accurately from his computer.

Porter’s view of medicine was that of a social historian – recognising that the practice of medicine was not necessarily just about doctors and their lives and practice, which had largely been the definition of the history of medicine until the mid-1970s. Radicalism and the challenge of new ideas were at the heart of much of Porter’s scholarship, and he sought in particular to address ‘history from below’, looking at the experiences of patients and non-orthodox practitioners, all situated within their particular historical contexts. As the distinguished physician Sir David Weatherall wrote in a tribute shortly after Porter’s death, “while always focussing on the social and political backgrounds which frame the health of societies, he handled the medical profession with great understanding and sympathy. Regardless of whether they were quacks or members of the upper echelons of the medical establishment, he seemed to have a deep understanding of their motives, limitations, and the way in which their work was shaped by the circumstances in which they practised”. Whether it was gout, AIDS or madness, Porter recognised the moral, symbolic significance that disease acquired – it could be created, for example, by literary figures or critics, the World Health Organization or patients. In 1986, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, when sanctions including notification and prosecution were proposed to control the disease, Porter wrote a powerful article in the British Medical Journal [1986, 293, 1589-1590]. Using the history of the treatment of victims of sexually transmitted diseases as criminals, he demonstrated how punitive responses were not only publicly but also medically unacceptable.

As professor Porter (which he became in 1993), a fellow of the British Academy, a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and this college, he often struck an incongruous figure. Never clean shaven, he wore jeans and cowboy boots, with an unbuttoned shirt through which a hairy chest and medallion were displayed, topped by a denim jacket with an ink-stained pocket, through which his row of ball point pens habitually ran. Rings on fingers, a bracelet or two, an earring and sometimes a neck chain as well as the medallion completed the look. His great love was for the Enlightenment, and it did not take a great leap of imagination to picture him in velvet breeches and satin waistcoat, his topboots kicked off, his wig awry and his cravat loose, ebulliently declaiming and writing radical tracts in a coffee house, rushing off through one of the capital’s pleasure gardens to a learned society to listen to or give a scientific demonstration, before finishing the day at a city playhouse watching Sheridan’s The Rivals, which he considered “the most exquisite comedy in the English language”.

In 2001 he took early retirement from what had by then become the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, and moved to St Leonard’s-on-Sea. He was influenced in his decision by his father’s early death and wanting to do so much more in life, telling colleagues “I don’t know how much longer I have to live and I want to get so much more done”. His immediate objectives were to learn to play the saxophone, study acting and spend more time gardening. His death less than a year later, cycling home from his allotment, was an enormous shock. He was survived by his partner Natsu Hattori, his former wives (he remained on good terms with all of them) and his mother Gladys Porter.

Tilli Tansey

[The Guardian 5 March 2002, 7 March 2002; The Daily Telegraph 6 March 2002; The Times 6 March 2002; The Independent 6 March 2002; Wellcome History 20, June 2002; Brit.med.J.,2002,324,680; Medical History, 2002,46,423-425]

(Volume XII, page web)

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