Jump to content

Roy Porter

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Roy Sydney Porter FBA (31 December 1946 – 3 March 2002) was a British historian known for his work on the history of medicine. He retired in 2001 from the director of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine at University College London (UCL).



Porter grew up in South London and attended Wilson's School in Camberwell.[1] He won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied under J. H. Plumb.[2] His contemporaries included Simon Schama and Andrew Wheatcroft. He achieved a double starred first[1][3] and became a junior Fellow in 1968, studying under Robert M. Young and lecturing on the British Enlightenment.[2] In 1972, he moved to Churchill College as the Director of Studies in History, later becoming Dean in 1977.[1][3] He received his doctorate in 1974, publishing a thesis on the history of geology as a scientific discipline.[4] He was then appointed to the post of Assistant Lecturer in European History at Cambridge University and promoted to Lecturer in European History in 1977.[4]

In 1979 he joined the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (part of University College London) as a lecturer. In 1993 he became Professor of Social History at the institute.[1][3] He briefly served as its Director. In 2000, Porter published The Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. He retired in September 2001, moving to St Leonards-on-Sea, where he wanted to learn to play the saxophone, cultivate his allotment and engage in some travelling.[2][4][5] He died of a heart attack five months later, while cycling.[5] His memorial service was on 22 April 2002 at St Pancras Parish Church.[5]

He was married five times, firstly to Sue Limb (1970), then Jacqueline Rainfray (1983), then Dorothy Watkins (1987), then Hannah Augstein, and finally his wife at the time of his death, Natsu Hattori.[2][3][6]

He was known for the fact that he needed very little sleep.[1][3][5]

Roy Porter gave an annual history lecture to the boys at Wilson's School, Wallington.

Media appearances


Porter made many television and radio appearances. He was an original presenter of BBC Radio 3's Night Waves,[1] a programme on which he was scheduled to appear, discussing doctors in literature, at the point of his death.[2]

He also spoke at a large variety of events, and was known for his oratorical talents.[4]



He was awarded the Leo Gershoy Award of the American Historical Association in 1988.[7]

Porter was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1994, and was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.[3][4][5]

A plaque for the memory of Porter was unveiled by the Mayor of Lewisham in a ceremony that took place on Thursday 5 June 2008 at 13 Camplin Street, New Cross Gate, London.[8]



Starting with the publishing of his PhD thesis, as The Making of Geology in 1977, Porter wrote or edited over 100 books,[3][4] an academic output that was, and is, considered remarkable.[2][3] The poet Michael Hofmann called him "a one-man book factory."[9] He is particularly notable for his work in the history of medicine, in pioneering an approach that focuses on patients rather than doctors.[1][3] Despite his recognition in the history of medicine, he is quoted as saying, "I'm not really a medical historian. I'm a social historian and an 18th century man".[5] In addition to the history of medicine and other sciences, he specialised in the social history of 18th-century Britain and the Enlightenment. He also wrote and lectured on the history of London. With G. E. Berrios, Porter published A History of Clinical Psychiatry (1985) and co-edited the international journal History of Psychiatry (1989).[10] He also edited the journal History of Science for many years.[1][5]

In 2007 Roberta Bivins and John V. Pickstone edited Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (Palgrave Macmillan). Several of the essays address Porter's work directly, and William F. Bynum appends a biographical sketch.

On the history of science

  • The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain, 1660–1815 (Cambridge and New York, 1977; reprinted 1980) (ISBN 9780521215213)
  • The Earth Sciences: An Annotated Bibliography (New York and London, 1983) (ISBN 9780824092672)
  • Man Masters Nature: Twenty-Five Centuries of Science (1989) ISBN 978-0-8076-1233-0
  • Porter, Roy, ed. (2003). Eighteenth-Century Science. The Cambridge History of Science. Vol. 4. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521572439.

On the history of medicine


On the Enlightenment

  • Edward Gibbon: Making History (London, 1988) (ISBN 9780297793373)
  • The Enlightenment (Basingstoke, 1990; 2001)
  • Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (London, 2000) (ISBN 9780713991529)
    • Published in the US as The Creation of the Modern World: The Untold Story of the British Enlightenment (New York, 2000) (ISBN 9780393048728)

On social history

  • English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1982; Harmondsworth, 1990) (ISBN 9780140220995)
  • London: A Social History (London, 1994; 1996; 2000) (ISBN 9780674538382)
  • The Rise and Fall of London's Town Centres: Lessons for the Future (London, 1996) (ISBN 9781899626250)

History Today Articles

  • "Under the influence": mesmerism in England (September 1985)
  • The Rise and Fall of the Age of Miracles (November 1996)
  • Bethlam/Bedlam: Methods of Madness? (October 1997)
  • Reading is Bad for your Health (March 1998)
  • Matrix of modernity – Roy Porter discusses how the British Enlightenment paved the way for the creation of the modern world (April 2001)
  • The body politic: diseases and discourses – Roy Porter shows how 18th-century images of the medical profession flow over into the work of political caricaturists (October 2001)



As editor


Books about Roy Porter

  • Remembering Roy Porter (2002, The Wellcome Trust)
  • Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter (2007) ISBN 9780230525498


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h John Forrester, "Obituary: Professor Roy Porter", The Independent, 6 March 2002 (accessed 6 July 2015)
  2. ^ a b c d e f 'Professor Roy Porter', The Telegraph, 5 March 2002 (accessed 14 March 2009)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i W F Bynum, "Obituary: Roy Porter", The Guardian, 5 March 2002 (accessed 14 Mar 2009)
  4. ^ a b c d e f Julia Sheppard, 'Obituary: Roy Porter 1946–2002', Medical History, 3 (2002)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Hugh Freeman, 'Obituaries: Roy Porter, Formerly Medical and Social Historian', Psychiatric Bulletin, 26 (2002): 398–399
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 15 June 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ "Leo Gershoy Award Recipients". American Historical Association. Retrieved 7 September 2015.
  8. ^ The Roy Porter Memorial Plaque Unveiling on the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine at UCL website
  9. ^ Baranauckas, Carla (13 March 2002). "Roy Porter, 55, Historian, 'A One-Man Book Factory'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 6 May 2020.
  10. ^ HPY.sagepub.com
  11. ^ Griffiths, Joanna (9 February 2002). "Review: Madness: A Brief History by Roy Porter". The Guardian.
  12. ^ Grob, Gerald N. (1 May 2003). "Review: Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine by Roy Porter". N Engl J Med. 348: 1823–1824. doi:10.1056/NEJM200305013481823.