Professor Roy Porter-Greatest Benefit to Mankind

Our colleague, Barry Turner, who teaches law and medical ethics  (University of Lincoln, UK) sent along some of the quotes from this astonishing book by Professor Roy Porter, a historian who “for 20 years astonished the literary world with his tireless high quality output…”

Professor Porter wrote or edited over 100 books before his untimely death at age 55 in 2002. See: .
The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present , by Professor Roy Porter , Fontana, Press , 1997.
Below are a few–still very relevant–quotes…

“Drugs have sometimes been disasters; iatrogenic illness has grown; research on afflictions like cancer, schizophrenia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases creeps at snails pace; doubts remain about the very subject of psychiatry”.

“The irony is that the healthier western society becomes, the more medicine it craves – indeed, it regards maximum access as a right and duty.  Especially in free market America, immense pressures are created – by the medical profession, by medi-business, the media, by the high pressure advertising of pharmaceutical companies, and dutiful (or susceptible individuals – to expand the diagnosis of treatable illness.  Scares are created. People are bamboozled into lab tests, often of dubious reliability.  Thanks to diagnostic creep ever more disorders are revealed”

“Doctors and consumers are becoming locked within a fantasy that everyone has something wrong with them”

“The knowledge that specific chemicals selectively stimulate certain brain cells has led to both the new psychopharmacological “wonder drug” Prozac and to chemical nerve gasses of extraordinary toxicity, like Sarin”

“Whether civilizations treatment of the mentally ill has become more humane in a century which gassed to death tens of thousands of schizophrenics is a question which permeits no comforting answers about rationality and sanity”

“…This book sets the history of medical thinking and medical practice at stage centre. It concentrates on medical ideas about disease, medical teachings about healthy and unhealthy bodies, and medical models of life and death …”

” This book is principally about what those healers have done, individually and collectively, and the impact of their ideas and actions…”

” I discuss disease from a global viewpoint; no other perspective makes sense … Nevertheless, I devote most attention to what is called “western” medicine, because western medicine has developed in ways which have made it uniquely powerful and led it to become uniquely global… its dominance has increased because it is perceived, by societies and the sick, to “work” uniquely well, at least for many major classes of disorders…”

“Medicine has offered the promise of “the greatest benefit to mankind”, but not always on terms palatable to and compatible with cherished ideals. Nor has it always delivered the goods … the prominence of medicine has lain only in small measure in its ability to make the sick well. This was always true, and remains so today …”

Below quotes from another Porter book,  A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1987.

“I wish to explore what mad people meant to say, what was on their minds. Their testimonies are eloquent of their hopes and fears, the injustices they suffered, above all of what it was like to be mad or to be thought to be mad … My points of reference, therefore, are language, history and culture.”

“The writings of the mad can be read not just as symptoms of diseases or syndromes, but as coherent communications in their own right. Psychiatric doctors have commonly denied intelligibility to madness … They often portrayed insanity as irrational, as nonsense …”

“The eternal joke in the history of lunacy involves a series of variations on the theme that madmen and mad-doctors switch identities and are impossible to tell apart. And it seems to me that in many of the encounters between “mad people” and their doctors which I shall examine …”

“Alexander Cruden and Dr Monro, John Perceval and Dr Fox, Daniel Schreber, Dr Weber, Freud … common humanity and often common sense perhaps lie squarely on the side of the mad.”

“But my intention in this is not to add the guns of history to the anti-psychiatry broadside. Rather it is to show how psychiatry has itself formed part of a common consciousness.”

“The mad and the mad-doctors are often saying intriguingly comparable things … with hindsight – or perhaps with distance, but certainly with sympathy – we can see how much sense the voices of the mad commonly made, in the desperate attempts of isolated, troubled and confused people to grasp their actual situations, their own urges, impulses, memories. They form the struggles of the despairing and powerless to exercise some control over those – devils, spooks, mad-doctors, priests – who had them in their power …”

Among his books:
English Society in the 18th Century (1990), Gibbon (1994), Disease, Medicine and Society in England, 1550-1860 (1995), A Social History of Madness (1996), Greatest Benefit to Mankind (1999), London: A Social History (2000), Bodies Politic (2001), Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000) and Madness (2002)

Obituaries from the Guardian below.

Contact: Vera Hassner Sharav <>
Roy Porter : Prolific scholar whose books and broadcasts revealed the medical and social history of Britain
WF Bynum
Tuesday March 5, 2002

A man of prodigious energy – needing only a few hours’ sleep a night – the eminent historian and broadcaster Roy Porter, who has died aged 55, seemed to write faster than many people read, and the steady stream of books became an avalanche once he had mastered the computer.

Roy took his historical scholarship seriously – from 1993 until last year, he was professor of the social history of medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine – but he became something of a populist as he grew older. His style became more dazzling and bemusing as his brilliant command of language and playfulness led to distinctly Porterian turns of phrase. He moved easily between social, medical and psychiatric history, and was never better than when describing eccentricity and extremes of temperament.

Within medical history, he pioneered the now fashionable concern with patients (instead of doctors), and his books on 18th-century medical history (two of them written with his third wife, Dorothy Porter) rescued this century from the clutches of historians blind to its medical richness. He also wrote widely on the history of psychiatry and its patients, and on sex and the history of the body. The Greatest Benefit To Mankind: A Medical History Of Humanity (1997) was a blockbuster history from Plato to Nato.

In many ways, Roy’s best book was London: A Social History (1994). He poured his heart into it, and his deep love and understanding of the city of his birth is reflected on almost every page. For several years, he spent his weekends tramping about greater London, getting a feel for the subject of this biography of a city. His introductory invocation of his south London childhood makes me regret that he wrote so much about other people, and so little about himself.

Roy was the only child of a Bermondsey jeweller. Although the home was without books, his early intellectual precocity led to a family myth that he was a changeling. A teacher at Wilson’s grammar school, Camberwell, opened his eyes to the world of culture; he never forgot how much he owed to the school, returning each year to talk to its students.

His starred double first in history at Cambridge Univer sity (1968) led to a junior research fellowship at his college, Christ’s, where his fascination with the 18th century had been awakened by Sir Jack Plumb (obituary, October 22 2001). In 1972, I attended Roy’s lectures on the English enlightenment; they were the beginnings of one of his last books, Enlightenment: Britain And The Creation Of The Modern World (2000). He had also acquired an abiding interest in the history of science, and his PhD thesis, published as The Making Of Geology (1977), became the first of more than 100 books that he wrote or edited.

He moved to Churchill College, Cambridge, as director of studies in history in 1972. When he was appointed dean of the college in 1977, many were amused that this secular man should hold such a title. In fact, he would have made an excellent 18th-century parson, as long as his beliefs were not too closely scrutinised.

He found Cambridge too cosy, however, and, in 1979, we lured him back to London, to the academic unit of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, where, 14 years later, he became professor. He was a natural in the classroom – a fluent speaker, able to explain complicated things in simple ways, and to infect his audience, no matter what the medium, with his enthusiasms.

What also developed was an exhausting schedule of public lectures, and frequent broadcasting on both radio and television. He wrote effortlessly, although the final version would often bear little resemblance to the first draft. He became a shrewd but generous reviewer, and a stickler for deadlines, which made him an editor’s dream.

Roy maintained this hectic pace for years. As he became busier and busier, he came increasingly to value efficiency. He once announced one of his divorces (there were four) by sticking a post-it on the notice board in the mailroom. In his eyes, this was not brutal, merely an efficient way of letting everyone know his news. His communications were often scribbled notes at the bottom of letters, faxed back by return. He came to emails only in the last year or so.

Roy was larger than life in all that he did. He was forever bursting out of his clothes, mostly denims, with two or three buttons on his shirt undone. Rings and earrings came and went, with no discernible relationship to his moods, so far as I could tell. He was, in fact, also a very private person. Although he had great sympathy with the underdog, he kept his own political beliefs hidden.

Although unconventional in so many ways, Roy was embraced by the establishment. Elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1994, he was also made an honorary fellow by both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He gave practically every lecture in established series for which he was eligible, and was delighted to go, last year, to Peru on behalf of the British Council.

When he took early retirement last year from the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London, as the unit had become, he wanted to take up a musical instrument, learn some foreign languages and cultivate his garden. Alas, he had time to make only a beginning of that last ambition. His sudden death is a shock for everyone who knew him, so full of life was he.

Roy’s preferred transport was the bicycle he was found beside en route to his allotment. He was at the height of his powers, relaxed and happy with his partner, Natsu Hattori. The Greeks would have called it a good death, but it came much too soon.

· Roy Sydney Porter, historian and writer, born December 31 1946; died March 4 2002.

Tireless historian Roy Porter dies at age of 55
John Ezard
Tuesday March 5, 2002

Roy Porter, the historian who for 20 years astonished the literary world with his tireless high quality output, died yesterday at the age of 55.

His death came while he was cycling to his allotment near St Leonards, East Sussex. Cause of death has not yet been established.

He had been professor of social history of medicine at the Wellcome institute. But he was known to a wider public for some 20 books, often published at the pace of one or even two a year, for a spate of book reviews and articles, and for broadcasting on a range of subjects.

“Superhuman is the word that comes to mind to describe his energy”, Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, to which Professor Porter often contributed, said last night. “There was nothing he was not interested in finding out about. He had a tremendous store of knowledge and eagerness. Curiosity and energy were the main things about him”.

Prof Porter’s broad interests were reflected in his book titles, ranging from his first, The Making of Geology in 1977, to one of his best known, A Social History of Madness (1987). One of his last books was called Gout: the Patrician Malady. Reviewing his book, En lightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, in the Guardian last November, Nicholas Lezard wrote: “My main quibble is with Roy Porter himself. He has written about a dozen books in roughly as many years. They are all ferociously learned yet utterly readable, and he hardly ever repeats himself as far as I can see. How the hell does he do it?”

Passionate democrat of learning
Sarah Dunant
Tuesday March 5, 2002

The first quality that comes to mind to describe Roy Porter is energy – inexhaustible, profound, generous. The same adjectives applied to his intellect. Not only did he have a brain with the storage capacity of a hard-drive, he also had the ability to communicate anything in it – from the most bizarre historical fact to the most complex ideas – with passion, simplicity and an infectious sense of pleasure.

Wherever you came across Roy – in the lecture hall, the studio or in conversation – he lit up the air with the excitement of thinking. His enjoyment was palpable; he even grinned as he talked.

The first time I met him was in Cambridge in 1971, and he was so young and hip – though one later realised that the medallion and the chest hair owed less to fashion than Roy’s glorious innate lack of style – that I thought he was one of the students. Until he opened his mouth.

Years later, when I sat across from him in a dozen radio the television studios, the impact was the same. Not only did he ignite the debate, he also made everyone else feel that they could join in. In his company, you always felt you too could fly. When I hear the phrase “the demo-cratisation of learning”, I think of Roy Porter. Maybe it was because he gave off so little sense of ego.

That was the other great thing about Roy. Although he achieved more than most of us will do in a dozen lifetimes, he wore it all so lightly. And was so generous with it. If you needed any help – from a reading list to a quick thesis – you simply fired him off a fax in the morning, and the answer would be back by the end of the day: the same day in which he had delivered a lecture, done the odd broadcast, written a couple of chapters for the 10 books he was currently writing, and answered a dozen queries like your own.

The really burning question I wanted to ask his many wives was not what was he like in bed – somehow that energy was its own answer – but did he ever sleep? Both the worlds of academia and media will be slower, drabber places without him.