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  Roy Sydney Porter (1946–2002), by unknown photographer Roy Sydney Porter (1946–2002), by unknown photographer
Porter, Roy Sydney (1946–2002), historian, was born at Foxholes, Hitchin, Hertfordshire, on 31 December 1946, the only child of Sydney George Porter, a jeweller, and his wife, Gladys Catherine, née Wilkinson, of 13 Camplin Street, New Cross, London. He grew up in New Cross and was always a quintessential Londoner. The family home was without many books, but his innate brilliance won him a place at Wilson's Grammar School, Camberwell, where a history master awakened his passion for the subject. He won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, where his starred double first in history (1968) set the pattern of much that was to follow.

Porter's interest in the eighteenth century was stimulated by Jack Plumb, with whom he always maintained an affectionate if ironic relationship. He also discovered the history of science, and he used his junior research fellowship at Christ's to write his PhD thesis on geology in Britain during the ‘long’ eighteenth century (roughly, 1690–1815). This was the basis of his first book, The Making of Geology in Britain, published in 1977, by which time he was a fellow and director of studies in history at Churchill College, Cambridge. His Cambridge lectures on the English Enlightenment were eventually the germ of one of his last books, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000). A supplemental volume, Flesh in the Age of Reason (2003), was published after his death.

For more than a decade in Cambridge Porter was a legendary supervisor of undergraduates. Such was his versatility that he taught British history, the history of political thought, and a highly successful special subject for finalists on the history of geology. He would begin teaching very early in the morning and see his last students late in the evening. His lectures were clear and robust: he would walk around in front of his audience, pausing and gesturing to emphasize an important point. Seeking more time to write, and finding the environment in Cambridge too cosy, in 1979 he moved back to London, where he became lecturer in the social history of medicine in the academic unit of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. He was promoted reader in 1991 and professor in 1993, and stayed at the Wellcome Institute until his early retirement in 2001, by which time he had become one of the most productive and visible historians in Britain. He had a natural fluency which made him a favourite with radio and television producers, and was a stickler for deadlines, which endeared him to editors. Books would frequently arrive by courier late in the afternoon, and early the next morning an entertaining review would be ready for publication. His phenomenal success as a popular historian contributed to his decision to retire early from academic life.

Porter's lasting contributions to historical scholarship can be grouped around four main themes: British social history, the history of the patient, the history of psychiatry, and the popularization of medical history for the general reader. He never lost his primary identity as a social historian, announced firmly in his English Society in the Eighteenth Century (1982, 2nd edn 1990). This volume in the new Pelican social history of England owed much to his association with Plumb, and was one of several monographs he wrote on the eighteenth century. His London: a Social History (1996) also falls into this social history category. It was one of his finest books, a vibrant, evocative history of his native city. He worked on it for years, spending many weekends tramping about London, the better to get a feel for the architecture and diverse cultural life of his subject. He was contracted to write a two-volume social history of Britain for Penguin, to replace the older work by G. M. Trevelyan, but this remained unfinished.

When Porter left Cambridge for the Wellcome Institute in London, he developed two new courses, one on the history of patients and doctors, the other on the history of psychiatry in Britain during the long eighteenth century. These provided enduring topics for his innovative historical scholarship. His work on patients (what he called ‘medicine from below’) encouraged historians to broaden their approach to the history of medicine. After all, he argued, without patients, there would be no doctors, but traditional medical history had concentrated only on healers to the neglect of sufferers. He edited a pioneering collection of essays on patients in 1985, based on a seminar series he had organized at the Wellcome. This was followed by two monographs, written with his third wife, Dorothy Porter. His wider vision of medicine's history also extended to marginal and unorthodox healers. A study of quacks went through two editions (1989 and 2000), and he published essays on a number of individual marginal healers, including James Graham and Joshua Ward. All this scholarship was developed within the more general context of the ‘medical marketplace’, the largely unregulated traffic in healing that flourished in the eighteenth century.

A third theme of Porter's research was the history of psychiatry. Another Wellcome seminar series formed the basis of a co-edited three-volume set (The Anatomy of Madness, 1985–8), and a number of Porter's monographs and articles followed. His Mind-forg'd Manacles (1987) examined the status and treatment of madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency. His Social History of Madness (1987), curiously named, reconstructed the life histories of a number of psychiatric patients, emphasizing the extent to which social values were constitutive in defining who was mad and who was sane. He also wrote a short history of psychiatry for popular consumption, and in 1990 co-founded and co-edited a quarterly journal, History of Psychiatry. For reasons that may have been embedded in his own Enlightenment rationalism, he always approached the tenets of psychoanalysis with scepticism.

Towards the end of his life Porter sought increasingly to reach a wider audience. His writing style, which had always been distinctive, became racier. His output also increased, as the computer and a group of assistants helped him meet a mountain of publishing deadlines. The major medical historical work of his last years was his survey of medicine from antiquity to the present, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1997). It was widely acclaimed, despite being produced amid a punishing schedule of media appearances and public lectures. He also wrote a short history of medicine and several short works aimed at students. His popular style had been honed by his media work as well as by book reviews and articles for the daily press. He could make ordinary people believe that they understood the problems facing modern medicine.

Porter tried to write something every day. He wrote easily, although he also revised heavily and the final product often bore little resemblance to the first draft. When he was not writing, lecturing, or dashing off to do a radio or television programme, he was editing. He edited a scholarly quarterly journal, History of Science, for twenty-five years, and co-edited books with more than a dozen colleagues. These ranged from ordinary collections of conference papers to substantial works of reference. His energy was legendary. He always left a tidy desk, having dealt with the mountain of post that came in each day. Replies were frequently scribbled notes at the bottom of letters, posted or faxed back on the day of receipt. He seemed to have a bit of time for almost anyone, though as he began increasingly to value his own time, there was little small talk. He was most comfortable in scruffy designer denims, with lots of jewellery, but he would wear a tie when the occasion demanded. Although he maintained a studied independence, he was a darling of the establishment. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1994 and was also a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He lived the last decade of his life in the public eye, but he remained intensely private.

Porter was married five times and divorced four times. His first wife was Margaret Susan (Sue) Limb (b. 1946), a writer, and daughter of Lewis Wilfred Limb, civil servant. They married on 15 August 1970. His second marriage, on 18 February 1983, was to Jacqueline Marie Rainfray, née Badger (b. 1943/4), a writer, and daughter of Andrew Jack Badger, engineer. His third wife was Dorothy Elizabeth Watkins (b. 1953), historian, and daughter of John Dudley Mayne Watkins, signwriter; they married on 10 July 1987. His fourth marriage, on 9 September 1997, was to (Hannah) Franziska Augstein (b. 1964), journalist, and daughter of Karl Rudolf Augstein, journalist. His fifth and final marriage, on 1 April 2000, was to Natsu Hattori, historian, and daughter of Toshiaki Hattori, university professor. There were no children of his marriages.

After his early retirement from the Wellcome Institute, Porter moved to St Leonards, Sussex, where he remained as busy and active as ever, with many books and other projects coming to fruition. He died suddenly on 3 March 2002 of a heart attack, while cycling to his allotment in St Leonards; he was declared dead at the Conquest Hospital, St Leonards. He was survived by his wife, Natsu. A memorial service was held at St Pancras parish church on 22 April 2002. The Society for the Social History of Medicine set up an essay prize in his memory, and there is a Porter lecture at the Wellcome Trust Centre, University College, London.

W. F. Bynum


H. Freeman, Psychiatric Bulletin, 26 (2002), 398–9 · L. Jordanova, Royal Historical Society newsletter (spring 2002) · W. F. Bynum, BMJ (16 March 2002), 680 · S. Schaffer, Social Studies of Science, 32 (2002), 477–86 · M. Hunter, History Today, 52/6 (2002), 6–7 · J. Forrester, History of Psychiatry, 13 (2002), 123–9 · V. Barras, Gesnerus, 59/3–4 (2002), 256–7 · The Guardian (5 March 2002); (7 March 2002) · The Times (6 March 2002) · Daily Telegraph (6 March 2002) · The Independent (6 March 2002) · WW (2002) · personal knowledge (2006) · private information (2006) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.





BFINA, documentary footage




BL NSA, documentary recordings


obituary photographs · photograph, Wellcome Trust [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£244,773: probate, 2 Aug 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales