Papers and correspondence of George Porter, Baron Porter of Luddenham, b.1920.

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Biographical material includes significant documentation of Porter's career, honours and awards from 1955 to 1992 including his appointment as Director of the Royal Institution in 1966 and the award of the Nobel Prize in 1967. Presented with the biographical material are papers relating to Porter's Nobel Lecture and the 1986 meeting held in his honour at the Royal Institution: 'Flash Photolysis and its Applications'.

There are good records of Porter's research from his return to academic life at Cambridge after the Second World War. There are notes, drafts and data which are particularly useful for the periods at Cambridge and Sheffield, a good record of the funding of Porter's research arranged alphabetically by funding body which covers the period, 1955-1987 and correspondence with suppliers of research equipment, 1955-1979. A miscellaneous group of papers is presented under the subheading 'Davy Faraday Research Laboratory' including papers relating to the Laboratory's collaboration with the University of London. Associated with the research material are records of the Photochemistry Discussion Group whose meetings were held at the Royal Institution and of patents which arose from research at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory.

Papers relating to the Royal Institution form by far the most substantial part of the collection. A major component of the Royal Institution papers documents the Director's involvement in the administration of the Royal Institution including questions of organisation, finance and funding, membership, and building and maintenance. Likewise, there is a significant record of the organisation of the events for which the Royal Institution is famous, most notably the Discourses and the Christmas Lectures. There is, for example, the Director's correspondence with Discourse Lecturers arranged alphabetically by lecturer, 'Discourse invitations declined', 'Discourses: suggested lecturers and topics', 'Discourse statistics' and Discourse dinner party records, and a chronological sequence of correspondence with lecturers about their Christmas Lectures. The controversy surrounding the Discourse and Christmas Lectures of E.R. Laithwaite, 1974-1975 is well documented. Another interesting component relates to the history of the Royal Institution, its library and archives and the development of the academic study of the history of science there.

As befits such a successful scientific communicator there are extensive records of Porter's lectures, publications and broadcasts. The bulk of the papers are Porter's drafts presented in two sequences, chronological, 1955-1988 and alphabetical by folder title or topic which covers a similar time span. There are drafts of lectures Porter gave at a variety of Royal Institution occasions such as Schools Lectures, Discourses and Christmas Lectures and drafts of his research lectures in the area of photochemistry. There is correspondence relating to lectures, broadcasts and publications including invitations to lecture, correspondence on BBC radio and television programmes and correspondence with journals reflecting Porter's editorial or advisory role. There are also notes taken by Porter as a student at Leeds and Cambridge and significant records of Porter's university teaching at Cambridge and Sheffield and his work with the Open University.

There are records of Porter's association with eighty-one British and international societies and organisations including commercial organisations with which Porter had a consultancy arrangement. In some cases documentation is slight, relating only to membership of foreign academies but in other cases where Porter held positions of leadership, for example, the Chemical Society, there is a fuller record. A number of organisations represented are related to some aspect of science education and popularisation including the Association for Science Education, the Bristol Exploratory and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The Royal Society is principally represented by records of discussion meetings in which Porter was an organiser on a number of occasions and the Paul Instrument Fund. Commercial organisations with which he had consultancy arrangements include, in the USA, the General Electric Research and Development Center and Energy Conversion Devices Inc.

Porter's correspondence is presented in a number of sequences, the most substantial of which is the contents of his 'Miscellaneous Correspondence' files. These were arranged alphabetically by correspondent, almost all dating from the period of his Directorship of the Royal Institution. In addition there are sequences of 'Early Scientific Correspondence', 'Miscellaneous Correspondence' presented chronologically, 1966-1987 and groups of correspondence kept together by Porter relating to 'Soviet Scientists', 1970-1987 and 'Japanese Scientists', 1973-1985. The 'Soviet Scientists' sequence concerns the efforts by Western scientists to help dissident scientists in the Soviet Union.

Administrative / Biographical History

George Porter was born in Stainforth in Yorkshire on 6 December 1920. He was educated at Thorne Grammar School, 1931-1938, and Leeds University, 1938-1941 where he was Ackroyd Scholar. The teaching of M.G. Evans at Leeds was influential in inspiring an interest in physical chemistry and chemical kinetics. During his final honours year he took a special course in radio physics which led to service, 1941-1945, as a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Radar Officer in the Western Approaches and the Mediterranean. His wartime training in electronics and pulse techniques was to prove useful later in suggesting new approaches to chemical problems.

In 1945 he went to the University of Cambridge to undertake postgraduate research with R.G.W. Norrish in the field of chemical kinetics and photochemistry. His research involved the study, by flow techniques, of free radicals produced in gaseous photochemical reactions. The idea of using short pulses of light, of shorter duration than the lifetime of the free radicals, occurred to Porter, and he began the construction of an apparatus for this purpose in the early summer of 1947 and, together with Norrish, applied this to the study of gaseous free radicals and to combustion. Their collaboration continued until 1954 when Porter left Cambridge. His subsequent work was mainly concerned with showing how the flash-photolysis method could be extended and applied to a great variety of problems in physics, chemistry and biology. He has made contributions to other techniques, particularly that of radical trapping and matrix stabilisation.

After nine years at Cambridge Porter spent a year as Assistant Director of the British Rayon Research Association in Manchester where he applied the new methods to practical problems of dye fading and the phototendering of fabrics. He then moved to the University of Sheffield where he was Professor of Physical Chemistry, 1955-1963 and Firth Professor of Chemistry, 1963-1966. Between 1963 and 1966 he was also Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution. Following the retirement of Sir Lawrence Bragg in 1966 Porter became Director of the Royal Institution and Fullerian Professor of Chemistry. Here his research group in the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory applied flash photolysis to the problem of photosynthesis and extended these techniques into the nanosecond and picosecond regions. Porter continued as Director until 1985.

Porter published extensively in leading scientific journals and Chemistry in the Modern World, 1962 and Chemistry in Microtime, 1996. He held many positions of leadership in the scientific community culminating in the Presidency of the Royal Society, 1985-1990. In 1990 he became Chairman of the Centre for Photomolecular Sciences, Imperial College London.

One of Porter's particular interests was scientific education and the interpretation of science to non-specialists, a field in which the Royal Institution has been famous for many years, making his appointment as Director especially appropriate. He spoke on scientific topics to the widest range of audiences from school children to scientific colleagues at specialised symposia. He was a successful science broadcaster on television including the 1965 BBC series of lectures entitled 'The Laws of Disorder: an introduction to chemical change and thermodynamics' and his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: 'Time Machines', 1969-1970 and 'Natural History of a Sunbeam', 1976-1977. His principal relaxation was sailing.

Porter received many awards and honours in recognition of his scientific achievements. He was elected FRS in 1960 (Medals: Davy, 1971; Rumford, 1978; Michael Faraday, 1991; Copley, 1992; Lectures: Bakerian, 1977; Humphry Davy, 1985). He was awarded the 1967 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (with M. Eigen and R.G.W. Norrish) 'for their studies of extremely fast chemical reactions, effected by disturbing the equilibrium by means of very fast pulses of energy'. He was knighted in 1972, awarded the Order of Merit in 1989 and made a life peer in 1990.


By section as follows: Biographical, Research, Royal Institution, Lectures, publications and broadcasts, Societies, organisations and consultancies, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Access to bona fide scholars by appointment with the Director of Collections, Royal Institution.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogues of the papers and correspondence of George Porter, Baron Porter of Luddenham, b.1920, NCUACS catalogue no. 100/5/01, 379pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

The papers were received from the Royal Institution, London and Lord Porter on various dates 1998-2000