Professor Roy Porter

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The Independent Online

Roy Sydney Porter, historian: born London 31 December 1946; Research Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1970-72; Fellow and Director of Studies in History, Churchill College, Cambridge 1972-79, Dean 1977-79; Assistant Lecturer in European History, Cambridge University 1974-77, Lecturer 1977-79; Senior Lecturer, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine 1979-91, Reader 1991-93, Professor in the Social History of Medicine 1993-2001 (Emeritus); FBA 1994; married 1970 Susan Limb (marriage dissolved), 1983 Jacqueline Rainfray (marriage dissolved), 1987 Dorothy Watkins (marriage dissolved); died St Leonards, East Sussex 3 March 2002.

Roy Porter was one of Britain's finest historians. In the three different areas which became his undisputed territory of expertise – general 18th-century social and intellectual history, the history of medicine and the history of psychiatry – his work will be indispensable. On top of that there is his work in the history of geology and his love-child, the history of London. His London: a social history was a very personal book; as a long-standing intimate of his reflected, Porter was "always a Londoner: you could imagine him selling his learned articles from a barrow in the East End".

The son of a jeweller, he was born in 1946 and raised in Camplin Street, New Cross Gate, London SE14, "a stable if shabby working-class community completely undiscovered by sociologists", as he described it, until 1959, when they moved to "pebble-dash Norwood with an indoor toilet". The self-described cuckoo in the family nest, he had an implausible talent for passing exams that took him to a local grammar school, Wilson's in Camberwell, where his wonderful English teacher, David Rees, urged him to Christ's College, Cambridge.

Betraying his mentor by reading History as the last of Jack Plumb's cohort of remarkable young historians – along with the slightly older Quentin Skinner, Simon Schama, John Brewer – he graduated with a double First in 1968. He was then inspired by Bob Young, a larger-than-life Texan Marxist historian of the brain sciences and Darwinism who moulded an entire generation of Cambridge historians of science, into doctoral research on 18th-century geology, on which he received great help from Martin Rudwick, completing his thesis in 1974. This was the time of my first meeting with him, when in 1969, as an undergraduate attending my first departmental seminar in Cambridge, I heard him give a paper on 18th- century geology, providing me with a model of how it was done.

Taking on the task of Director of Studies in History at Churchill College in 1972, he devoted himself to teaching 20 or 25 supervisions a week over the next few years, and was appointed to the unlikely position of Dean in 1977.

Though he published prodigious numbers of papers, there was as yet no hint of the imminent avalanche of books; he took the conventional three years to convert his thesis into a scholarly monograph, The Making of Geology. In 1979, taking stock of the time he devoted to students, to committees, and to being the one-person bridge between the Cambridge Faculty of History and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, he decided to seek a post that gave him more time – and more facilities – to engage in research. He moved to the Wellcome Institute for History of Medicine on London's Euston Road, linked to University College, where he was first Senior Lecturer and then, from 1993, Professor of Social History of Medicine, till his early retirement in September 2001.

Porter's publications then came fast and furious: one edited volume on the earth sciences appeared in 1979 (Images of the Earth: essays in the history of the environmental sciences, with Ludmilla Jordanova), another on 18th-century science in 1980 (The Ferment of Knowledge: studies in the historiography of eighteenth-century science, with G.S. Rousseau), two more (one, The Enlightenment in National Context, with Mikulás Teich, an émigré Czech scholar who had a great influence on Porter and with whom he edited a series of seminal comparative studies of 18th-century Europe) in 1981 and, to round off the year, a Dictionary of the History of Science (with W.F. Bynum and E.J. Browne) for Macmillan.

In 1982, his English Society in the Eighteenth Century appeared in "The Pelican Social History of Britain" series; four edited volumes appeared in 1985. In the early 1980s, he had initiated, with Bill Bynum, the research seminar in the history of psychiatry which was to breed a whole new generation of researchers – the volumes Bynum and Porter published under the title The Anatomy of Madness opened a new era, the post-anti- psychiatry era, in the historiography of psychiatry. Nineteen eighty-seven saw the pace quicken: six edited volumes and four entirely from his own pen, including the fruit of his personal research in history of psychiatry – Mind Forg'd Manacles: a history of madness from the Restoration to the Regency and A Social History of Madness: stories of the insane.

Porter was making good on the new historical aims: writing history from the patient's point of view, and demonstrating how the Foucaultian history of the Great Confinement and the exclusion of madness from the Age of Reason certainly did not give a true picture of English madness.

To the study of madness he brought a very different temperament from the sombre facelessness of the great French philosopher: he was, like the English 18th century which he so evocatively described, genial and gracious, lovable and generous; already a benevolent patron to many, he was revealed as an unfashionably unassuming, though prodigiously learned, man of letters. He was no melancholic; his publishing record might lead some to entertain the only possible explanation of such immoderate prodigality: namely fits of mania.

Never tied down to one area of the past, Porter returned with his next book to the author he was obliged to read in his first week as an undergraduate: Edward Gibbon: making history (1988). Another five edited volumes appeared that year; in the next year there were his Health for Sale: quackery in England 1660-1850 and (co-written with his third wife, Dorothy Porter) Patient's Progress: doctors and doctoring in eighteenth-century England.

If anything his pace quickened again: a slim volume on the Enlightenment in 1990 foreshadowed his major study of 2000, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world. Edited volumes in the history of medicine – on the senses, on literature and medicine, the definitive reference work on the entire history of medicine (Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, edited with Bill Bynum for Routledge, 1993) – preceded another look back at his own past: London: a social history (1994), a book which teems with stories, hidden connections between names, places, social movements, urban pleasures and disasters. His work in the history of medicine, on sex, on the body, on low life and professional life, was all profitably channelled into this history of his home town.

By 1994, he was researching the book that no one else dared to write – and that no one will write for at least another generation, if not century: a general history of medicine, to replace Garrison's standard history published in 1917. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: a medical history of mankind from antiquity to the present, 800 pages of limpid, unassuming, lively and superbly well-informed prose, was published in 1997.

While he was preparing this magnum opus, the flow of edited volumes continued unabated: on medical journals, waters and spas, Foucault's legacy, the historiography of psychiatry, drugs, sexual science, clinical psychiatry, the industrial revolution, the age of anxiety, the self and many more – not to mention the bulky works of reference on 18th-century history (A Dictionary of Eighteenth Century World History, 1994, reissued as The Penguin Dictionary of Eighteenth Century History, 1996) prepared with Jeremy Black. The flow was unabated into the new century, when Porter, unpredictable as always, decided to take early retirement and moved to the unlikely town of St Leonards on the Sussex coast with his partner Natsu Hattori, to spend more time travelling, to learn the saxophone and to cultivate his allotment.

All who knew Roy Porter spoke immediately of his unstinting generosity. Everyone remembered the first time they met him because something came of it, often their start in academic life: an invitation to contribute to a new volume he was editing; a request to supervise students that even he was too overwhelmed with commitments to take on; a stream of references that could form the backbone for a new research project.

Porter moved fast, through the archive, through the social and academic world, through the plays and books which he reviewed at a pace that made even the other prodigious reviewers of our times, such as Anthony Burgess, seem sedate. Porter reviewed for all the Sundays, all the dailies, all the weeklies – New Society was a launch-pad in the 1970s; he always said yes to the editor in need of quick copy, who adored him for his nonchalantly impeccable deadline-meeting. He was for many years editor of two major academic journals, History of Science and, with its co-founder German Berrios, History of Psychiatry.

Always in demand as an external examiner or adviser to university appointments committees, he would treat these serious occasions with the same steady detachment and unfussy good judgement he devoted to less solemn tasks: after a long day of such meetings, when others were prostrate with the exhaustion of having given, on Porter's advice, a coveted job for life to a young scholar, Porter would hop on his bike, off to the station to meet an equally crucial deadline talking to a local history society about quackery or to a sixth form in Shropshire about coffee houses as places of learning in the 18th century. He returned every year to his old school to give a talk.

How did he do it? Beyond his undoubted capacity for quick reading, accurate retention of information and extreme rapidity for accurate assessment, the easy answer is to point to the very few hours of sleep he needed; and it was true – for some years, when I needed to contact him, I knew I could reach him in his office at the Wellcome between six and seven in the morning, where he was answering his prodigious post-bag before the busy day began.

Just as remarkable as his literary productivity was his capacity for good living. In his Cambridge days, the Clare Street house where he lived with his then wife, Sue Limb, was famous for its superbly raucous and unbuttoned dinner parties – Roy did the cooking; even then, the guests knew that, once they'd left and Roy had done the washing up, he would sit down to write something. He was always busy but always had time for the main pleasures in life – for years we played chess by correspondence, sometimes having three games on the go. He did the same with many others. His conversation was full of strange stories, humorous and uncanny, often of bizarre events that happened to him – such as the Chaplinesque consequences of the night life of London taking him for a fellow tramp.

And his standing as an historian? Comparisons are odious but inevitable. Was he the A.J.P. Taylor of his generation, effortlessly bridging the popular and the academic? Perhaps he is more akin to Peter Gay, upon whose remarkable work on the Enlightenment Porter respectfully built, and whose span is equivalent to his.

One feature of Porter's career is unique: he was the populist and good liver, the don in jeans and untreated leather boots, famous gold chain nestling on his hairy chest, arriving for parties with a bike-lamp in one hand and a bottle of champagne (always he brought champagne) in the other, published and broadcasting everywhere; yet he was never outside the Establishment, in which he had absolutely no interest, never embattled and liminal as Taylor was, never withdrawn from the thankless tasks of keeping the profession going, never remote from the needs of younger and more workaday historians.

Roy Porter's network of professional contacts comprised the whole field of history of medicine and history of science. Without him at the centre, there may no longer be a web. In seminars, learned journals, conference publications, reference books – in other words, in the internal academic world with no publicity, no money, no thanks but the gratitude of his colleagues – Porter was the indefatigable centre of all things.

Yet, at the same time, his voice was always on the radio (he was an original presenter of Radio 3's Nightwaves), his easy style sprang out of every newspaper one opened. Being known by everyone but lacking all interest in fame, being at the centre of professional activities but lacking all interest in power or anything remotely akin to it – Roy Porter was generous and self-effacing. So generous that there was a curiously impersonal element to him: he never expected any return for the many gifts he showered on so many people, so the true nature of his connection with his friends and colleagues remained a mystery. The only time he asked me to do something that counted as a favour was to help him move his gardening tools from his allotment in Cambridge, when he was decamping to London in 1979.

In his last major work, Enlightenment, he wrote:

The pen may not have been mightier than the sword, yet Enlightenment words did prove dangerous weapons. Those making quills their arrows were not the grovelling mouthpieces of absolutist rulers, but freebooters, those intellectual bandits who have ensured the intellectual anarchy of "free societies" ever since.

A freebooter and intellectual bandit, savourer and embodiment of intellectual anarchy, a fun-lover, such also was Roy Porter, yet a man of extraordinary generosity: an implausibly good citizen.

John Forrester