Obituary: Lord Porritt
Tuesday 04 January 1994
ARTHUR PORRITT was a pioneering surgeon, surgeon to both King George VI and the Queen, and the first native-born Governor-General of New Zealand.
Porritt was born in Wanganui in 1900, the son of a surgeon. He was educated at Wanganui Collegiate School, and at Otago University, where his general ability and athletic prowess gained him a Rhodes Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. In the aftermath of the First World War he shared the trials and joys of university life with many ex-servicemen, mostly older than himself, helped by the modest assurance of the born athlete, and by the natural diplomacy which afterwards marked his whole career. The uniqueness of that environment has been epitomised by the Olympic film Chariots of Fire (1981), to which he was an adviser, and in whose original events he played a leading part.
Porritt was President of the Oxford University Athletic Club in 1925-26; an athletics Blue in 1923- 26, during which time he held the university's 100 yards and 220 yards hurdles records, and the 100 yards for Oxford v Cambridge with a time of 9.9 seconds. He captained the New Zealand Olympic team in Paris in 1924, where he won a bronze medal in the 100 metres, behind the British sprinter Harold Abrahams. His Olympic career continued as Captain at the Amsterdam Games in 1928, as Manager in Berlin in 1936 and for many years on the International Olympic Committee and British Olympic Council, and as Vice-President of the British Empire and Commonwealth Games Federation.
During those same years his career as a surgeon was developing. The Dean of St Mary's Hospital Medical School was Dr Charles Wilson, later Lord Moran. Wilson had a gift for judging men, and for making good appointments; securing Arthur Porritt for St Mary's was a perfect example. Porritt's speed and scoring ability kept him in the vintage pre-war St Mary's rugby side during some of their best seasons. Passing the FRCS (England), he was soon on the surgical staff, working on the Professorial Unit with Charles Aubrey Pannett, to whom in later years he would often pay tribute as his true teacher and guide in the art and science of surgery. To Pannett, it seems certain, Porritt owed his forward-looking concept of host immunity to cancer invasion.
Porritt carried the athlete's directness and simplicity into his surgical work. With prophetic foresight, and considerable professional courage, he went against the mainstream of surgical opinion in his treatment of two of the commonest conditions, hernia and cancer of the breast. For the one, he developed what was clearly a forerunner of today's minimal access or keyhole surgery; by showing that it was possible to reduce and heal the bulge with skilfully placed injections into and around the weak area. The plight of the woman facing ablation of her breast, often in early middle age, a time of otherwise settled happiness, led him to question the accepted universal need for such a large operation for even the smallest of tumours. With a philosophy that was years ahead of his time he saw that there must be an immunity, and some failure of it, when cancer invades, and that a radical amputation of the whole area might sometimes be more destructive than curative. Many survivors today will remember his wise counsel and kindly gentleness during their hospital care and later follow-up. The conservatism that he advised in many early cases of this scourge of womanhood is now accepted; even too, the belief that the tenderness of the caring doctor can give strength to recovery and to healing.
These qualities of understanding and compassion must have been a help to Porritt in his long professional service to the Royal Family; from the first early recognition of his merit by his appointment as Surgeon to the Duke of York in 1935 and the Household in 1936, to King George VI in 1946 and to the Queen in 1952. His long friendship with the Queen Mother and her patronage of St Mary's no doubt helped towards the achievement of the splendid wing that bears her name.
Arthur Porritt was also an army surgeon of renown. His war service with the 21st Army Group in North Africa and Europe accorded with the rising fortunes of the Allies; friendships were made with all ranks. A close bond was sealed with several American surgeons of distinction which came to later fruition in the setting up of exchanges at both consultant and training levels, to the immeasurable benefit to those concerned, particularly the younger British men whose appointments to leading US institutions he secured. They realise that these opportunities were the key to their later success.
Between 1960 and 1963 Porritt served a memorable term as President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, with the initiation of many new training and research posts and the direction of a highly active scientific and educational programme at the college itself. With his personal charm, wide circle of friends and eminent patients he raised many thousands of pounds for surgical research by the college and until the last few months never missed fund-raising committees for this work.
His return home in 1967 as the first New Zealand-born Governor- General was a natural progression towards the future of the appointment. He and his wife Kay worked hard and succeeded. As well as his administrative burden and diplomatic responsibilities he found time for his love of freemasonry, with the appointment of Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand.
Coming back to Britain in 1972, he was able to give more time to his Olympic and collegiate interests. Honours continued, many universities, other colleges received him into their honorary fellowships. He was made a life peer in 1973. He and Kay shared with their family and friends a long and happy series of gatherings at their London home.
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