Papers and correspondence of Rodney Robert Porter, 1917-1985

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Porter had cleared many of his files in preparation for retirement, and the surviving papers therefore consist only of material he chose to retain as of immediate relevance. Of special interest is the sequence of research notebooks covering almost half a century, 1936-1985 and continuing to within a couple of days of his death. It provides not only a record of experiments and observations but a direct insight into Porter's methods of work and especially his tenacity over long periods of trial and disappointment. The books document the early and later successful work on crystalline papain, the work on complement, and Porter's last research ideas which continued to form the basis of ongoing experiments after his death. Porter's interest in the history of immunology is shown by the records of the Jenner Trust. Asked to serve as the Royal Society representative on the Trust in July 1977, he was active in its affairs and in particular the project to purchase, refurbish and equip Jenner's house in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, as a museum. There is relatively little personal material, but Porter's letters home during his war service in Britain, North Africa and Europe have survived. Recollections of friends and colleagues were also made available.

Administrative / Biographical History

Porter was born and educated in Lancashire, graduating from Liverpool University in 1939. The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted the doctoral research he began at Liverpool and Porter served in the Royal Engineers until 1945, rising to the rank of major. He returned to research at Cambridge University as the first graduate student of F. Sanger. He obtained his doctorate in 1948 and the following year joined the scientific staff of the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, collaborating with A.J.P. Martin; this was the period of his first crucial research on antibodies.

In 1960 Porter became the first holder of the Pfeizer Professorship of Immunology at St Mary's Hospital, London - this was the first Chair of Immunology to be created in Britain. His continuing research on antibody structure at this time was helped by funding by the Medical Research Council and in large part by the American National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. When the Whitley Chair of Biochemistry at Oxford became vacant on the retirement of H.A. Krebs, Porter was invited to accept the appointment, which he held from 1967 to his death. During the Oxford period Porter's research interests moved to the components of complement, particularly C1 and C4, in the MRC Immunochemistry Unit which he founded and directed. Three weeks before retirement from the Whitley Chair and the start of full-time commitment to research as the Director of the Immunochemistry Unit, he was killed in a road accident. Porter was elected FRS in 1964 (Royal Medal 1973, Copley Medal 1983, Croonian Lecture 1980) and was awarded the 1972 Nobel Prize for Medicine (jointly with G.M. Edelman) for their discoveries concerning the chemical structure of antibodies.


By section as follows: Biographical, Research notebooks, Oxford, Organisations and consultancies, Visits and conferences, Journals and publications, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Entry permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card or an Oxford University Card displaying the Bodleian logo. All applicants for new or replacement cards must apply in person, with a recommendation and payment if required, and with proof of their identity.

Some items not available for 20 or 30 years from date of writing.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Rodney Robert Porter (1917-1985) by J. Alton and P. Harper, CSAC catalogue no. 119/1/87, 62 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Separated Material

Two notebooks are held by the Jenner Museum, Berkeley, Gloucestershire.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in 1986 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from the MRC Immunochemistry Unit at the Department of Biochemistry, Oxford through the courtesy of Dr K.B.M. Reid, and from Mrs Julia Porter, widow. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1987.

Corporate Names