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
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
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,
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
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
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 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.
Last updated: 6 September 2002 17:00
Created by: Rachel Tunstall
Maintained by: Barbara Whiteman
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