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Obituary: Lord Porter of Luddenham, OM, FRS

Former Chancellor of the University of Leicester, Lord Porter of Luddenham, OM, FRS, died on Saturday, August 31, aged 81. The University’s third Chancellor, he served between 1984 and 1995.

One of the most highly regarded and well-known scientists in Britain, and a Nobel prize-winner, he had a gift for communicating his enthusiasm for science.  

It was for his work on techniques for observing and studying extremely fast chemical reactions during the processes of combustion, explosion and chain reaction that, with his Cambridge colleague Professor Ronald Norrish, and with the German scholar Manfred Eigen, he shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1967. Porter and Norrish developed flash photolysis, using pulses of light even shorter than the reactions they sought to study, to open up a window onto a hitherto impenetrable world.  

Lord Porter of Luddenham, OM, FRS
Lord Porter of Luddenham, OM, FRS

Underpinning Porter’s science was a bedrock of everyday reality, and a profound concern for the future of mankind and the interlinked physical and biological systems of the planet. If the processes of photosynthesis could be unravelled, then mankind might be able to solve its energy problems and look forward to a truly sustainable future.

Far from being remote these considerations were basic, and the questions posed were those that any child might ask. Thus Porter’s great interest in encouraging young people to understand science followed naturally from his academic study.  He used his skills in communication most successfully in a highly entertaining series of televised Christmas Lectures. 

A fluent and infectious speaker, lecturer and broadcaster on radio and television, he became widely known and in great demand throughout the country. In later years he campaigned for the greater teaching of science in schools, 
to all children between the ages of five and 18.  

Portrait of Lord Porter
Portrait of Lord Porter by Bryan Organ

He was outspoken too in his criticism of national science policies and inadequate funding, of the “pseudo-sciences” of psychologists, sociologists and economists, and spoke strongly of the need for industry to do its own research. His position as President of the Royal Society gave him a powerful platform from which to express his views, and his belief in the power of the media was revealed in a forceful Dimbleby lecture in 1986, attacking the Thatcher government for deliberately ‘downgrading scientific research’.

George Porter was born in the Yorkshire town of Stainforth, and went to Leeds University as an Ackroyd Scholar in 1938. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy on anti-U-boat patrol, working on radar. Taking up a research career at Cambridge, he became Fellow of Emmanuel College in 1952, going to the University of Sheffield as Professor of Physical Chemistry in 1960, where he became Head of Department in 1963.

George Porter was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1960. He became Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1963, serving as its Director from 1966 to 1985, and as president of the Royal Society from 1985 to 1990. Among his many honours were over 50 honorary degrees, professorships and fellowships. He was knighted in 1972, was awarded the Order of Merit in 1989, and made a Life Peer in 1990.

In honour of its former Chancellor the University of Leicester named the Chemistry teaching building the George Porter Building in 2001, when Lord Porter unveiled a commemorative plaque. This building, the first to be completed on the Science site in 1960, is currently being refurbished, and will next year accommodate the whole Chemistry Department – a fitting memorial to one of Chemistry’s most innovative academics and one of science’s greatest popularisers.

September 2002

Death notice

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Last updated: 6 September 2002 17:00
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