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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

picture of Roy Porter

Roy Porter


Roy Porter 1946-2002

Julia Sheppard (Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine)

Roy Porter, who died on 3 March 2002, was one the best historians of his generation. His prolific output brought social and medical history to new audiences.

Only a few months ago Roy's colleagues and friends at the Wellcome Centre and Library (previously the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine) were celebrating his early retirement and wishing him health and happiness. He was full of plans for a new life ('I've never done so many of the things I want to do before I'm dead'), which included growing vegetables, learning to play a musical instrument, learning a language, and travelling to the many places he had never had time to visit: doing 'creative things'. Needless to say, he was also going to write the odd book, contribute to a BBC series, undertake lecture tours and generally do more in his retirement than most people do when working. But then Roy always had the energy and productivity of a team of people, so there was nothing surprising in that. His sudden death therefore, at the age of 55 has shocked all those who came in contact with him. It seems so unfair that someone so full of life, who looked healthier than ever, who still had so much to offer us, and who was clearly enjoying a happy 'retirement', should be denied more time.

Roy came from a south London working-class home and attended Wilson's Grammar School, Camberwell, of which he was later to say '[ it] fills the memory, haunts my dreams as the great formative experience'. He was later to return to speak on Founder's Day each year, although he claimed that it filled him with dread:

'I can face lecturing to students, They are consumers who have chosen their own fate... Children are the cruelest audience, because I pity the five hundred faces trapped in front of me .. are they looking down to hide their embarrassment as I stumble through my stock of platitudes? I am unused to being rhetorical or inspirational (let alone inspired or inspiring)'.

It was typical Porter to see the event through the eyes of his audience, to be scared of being a bore, and to downplay the effect he made with his outstanding and indeed inspirational gift with words.

Roy read history at Christ's Cambridge (studying under J. H. Plumb and Quentin Skinner) where he took a double first. In 1972 he was appointed fellow and director of studies in History at Churchill College and finished his PhD, on the development of geology as a scientific discipline, in 1974. He was then appointed Assistant Lecturer in European History, Cambridge University, and promoted to Lecturer in European History and Dean of Churchill College in 1977.

In 1979 Roy moved to the Wellcome Institute as senior lecturer, where he played a vital role in the flourishing Institute with its very full academic programme, while publishing on a scale which sometimes defied belief. The Wellcome gave him the freedom from administrative responsibilities and the resources (not least access to enormous amounts of photocopying), to facilitate his extraordinarily prolific output. The 18th century and the Enlightenment were his particular fascinations, but his interests embraced a wide range of social, medical and scientific topics including the history of geology, political thought, the history of madness, quackery, sex, London, the doctor and patient, art and literature. Apart from editorship of History of Science (1972- 2001), and jointly of both the journals Journal of Historical Sociology (1988-2000) and History of Psychiatry (1990-2001), Roy was joint editor of the Wellcome Series in the History of Medicine and acted as consultant to numerous publishers. His monographs include The Making of Geology (1977); English Society in the 18th Century (1982) ; London: A Social History (1994); Mind Forg'd Manacles: Madness and Psychiatry in England from the Restoration to Regency (1987); The Greatest Benefit to Mankind': A Medical History of Humanity (1997); Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000); Madness: A Brief History (2002). Roy had a number of projects on file and it is hoped that two further books will see the light of day with Penguin: Mind, Body, Spirit and Blood and Guts: A brief history of Medicine. There was also talk of a two-volume history of Britain from the 17th to the 19th-centuries. In total there were over 100 books- not to mention the countless reviews.

His gruelling schedule of lectures ranged from the smallest local history society and association to prestigious named lectures. Always a popular speaker, Roy was a natural communicator. Chameleon-like he would adjust his style for each audience to perfection, conveying excitement and enthusiasm. He spoke with panache, making plentiful use of colourful quotations and quirky alliterations, yet the apparent ease with which he spoke belied the fact that he had frequently rehearsed the lecture carefully beforehand. Increasingly he was in demand by the media, contributing to Nightwaves and other radio and television programmes. A TV series on the Enlightenment was in hand, which he claimed to be very nervous of doing. Yet he would surely have been a star performer in this as well, becoming, in the process, even more widely known.

Promoted to a chair in 1993, he was made Professor Emeritus on his retirement in September 2001. Wider recognition of his achievements came with his election to the British Academy in "1994 and to honorary fellowships of both the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Physicians; University College London had recently nominated him for an Honorary Fellowship.

Roy knew everyone and had a good working relationship with a huge network of contacts. Despite an apparently frantic lifestyle, he was very generous with his time and continued to be so even in his 'retirement'. At the same time he could be dismissive of those who suffered from writing blocks or failed to meet deadlines. Action was all. If a good general textbook on medical history did not exist there was no point in wingeing about it, write one yourself... hence his 800 page general history of medicine, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind.
Roy treated all his colleagues and friends alike, without pretension, irrespective of their position. With his cheeky grin, unshaven stubble, flamboyant or casual dress of leather jacket, boots, jewellery or denims, charging around London on his bike, Roy was far from the popular image of the academic and relished his freedom to do as he wished. His indefatigable energy and appetite for living to the full spilled over into his private life, which was a complicated one, with four marriages and resulting financial difficulties. The subject of speculation, Roy maintained a very private persona, known well by only a very few.

Roy never lost his energy, enthusiasm and curiosity. His death is untimely, but his life will be remembered and celebrated as one of incredible achievement and a huge capacity for fun.

7 March 2002

Roy Sidney Porter born 31 December 1946, died 3 March 2002. He leaves behind his mother and his partner, Natsu Hattori. And his ex-wives Susan Limb, Jacqueline Rainfray, Dorothy Watkins and Hannah Augstein.

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