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Roy Porter, the greatest medical historian of his generation dies at the age of 55

Roy Porter (1946 - 2002)

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Obituary by Bill Bynum

The greatest medical historian of his generation dies at the age of 55

The sudden and premature death of Professor Roy Porter at the age of 55 has removed one of our most creative and productive commentators on the medical enterprise, past and present. He died from a heart attack, cycling to his allotment in St Leonards, East Sussex. He had moved to St Leonards last May, in anticipation of his retirement last September from his chair at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London.

Roy seemed destined for distinction from an early age. The only child of a Bermondsey jeweller, he grew up in a south London working class home. His school, Wilson’s Grammar School, Camberwell, had no tradition of sending its products to university, much less Cambridge, to where Roy won a scholarship. His double starred first in history (1968) was a taste of things to come, and it was followed by a junior research fellowship at his College, Christ’s, and a teaching post at Churchill College, Cambridge. He remained a Cambridge man through and through, but he never regretted his decision to leave, in 1979, and turn himself into a medical historian within the academic unit of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London. He had already mastered a lot of science, especially geology, in the course of his PhD thesis and first book, on geology in 18th century Britain.

Although Roy became the pre-eminent medical historian of his generation, he never lost his early identity as a generalist. He established his reputation as a leading social historian with his English Society in the 18th Century (Penguin, 1982). It was one of the few of his books to be revised, in 1990—Roy always preferred to move on rather than rework old ideas. Later books, including his brilliant London: A Social History (1994) and his magisterial analysis of the Enlightenment in Britain (2000), were culminations of themes that had long intrigued him. He wrote and edited dozens of other books on general historical topics, returning often to his beloved 18th century.

When Roy came to the Wellcome Institute (as it was), he developed courses on patients and doctors (the order was significant), and on the history of psychiatry. He was a brilliant teacher, and his courses provided themes for some of his best medical historical writing. He pioneered the now common historical aim of giving patients their voice. Two volumes (written with his third wife, Professor Dorothy Porter) explored the experience of illness and patient-doctor relations during the "long" 18th century (1650-1850), and he wrote an amusing, yet powerful, history of psychiatric patients. His study of psychiatry in 18th century England won the Leo Gershoy Prize of the American Historical Association. He loved, too, the robust medical marketplace of earlier centuries, and his work on medical quackery brought new standards to a subject previously thought fit only for antiquarian amusement.

These represent only a sample of Roy’s staggering output in medical history. Many other instances are available in the bibliography of his massive history of medicine from beginning to end, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (1997). Few historians would have dared such as audacious project, and none could have brought it off with such Porterian aplomb.

Through his writings (more than 100 edited and written works, plus innumerable reviews), and his extensive work on radio and television, Roy brought medical history to a wide public. For many people, indeed, he was medical history. What he did was to convince historians of the importance of health and disease as formative historical topics, and remind the medical profession of the richness and relevance of its history.

There can have been few people, ever, with Roy’s energy and dynamism. He combined brilliance with an exhausting schedule of writing, lecturing and examining. I used to pride myself on getting into the office by 7 am. Roy had generally been there a hour or more already, and if (as was common) he had given a talk the evening before to a medical or historical society somewhere in the provinces, was on the first train back to London. He often appeared exhausted but never stopped.

Roy was aware, of course, of his own brilliance, but he was entirely without vanity or arrogance. He was generous to others less gifted than himself, patient with dull students, and inspirational to the bright ones. His deepest values were those 18th century ones of tolerance and openness. He looked ill at ease in a suit and tie, and although always an individualist, his non conformity manifested itself only in harmless ways, such as earrings, flashy jewellery, and a leather jacket and boots.

Despite his flamboyance, the British establishment took him to its heart. He was a fellow of the British Academy (1994) and both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists elected him to honorary fellowships. He was happy in his all-too-short "retirement," and in his relationship with Natsu Hattori. But the pace never slowed until, suddenly, it stopped. [W F Bynum]

Roy Porter, emeritus professor in the social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London; b 1946; d 3 March 2002