George Porter (1920 - 2002)

Picture of George Porter

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (with Ronald Norrish) in 1967

The Right Honourable George Porter, Baron Porter of Luddenham, OM, FRS (6 December 1920–31 August 2002) was an English chemist.

He was born in Stainforth, Yorkshire, and served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War.

He was appointed Director of the Royal Institution in 1966 and awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967. He was the only Director of the Royal Institution to become, later, President of the Royal Society (1985-1990), who had elected him as a Fellow in 1960 and also awarded him the Davy Medal in 1971, the Rumford Medal in 1978 and the Copley Medal in 1992. He was knighted in 1972, appointed to the Order of Merit in 1989 and made a life peer as Baron Porter of Luddenham, of Luddenham in the County of Kent, in 1991.

His first degree from Leeds University was followed by the research at Cambridge under Norrish that ultimately led to them both becoming Nobel Laureates. By 1955 he had moved to Sheffield University, where he stayed until his move to the Royal Institution initially as Professor of Chemistry and then, from 1966, as, simultaneously, Director, Fullerian Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory; thence his research group moved on to Imperial College, where he headed the Centre for Photomolecular Studies.

His original research was in the development of the technique of flash photolysis, using short flashes of light to obtain information on short-lived molecular species. The original flashes came from war surplus RAF aerial flash tubes, but, forty years later, from special ring lasers that can deliver powerful pulses of light lasting as little as femtoseconds. He was the first person to find solid evidence of chemical free radicals, using this method. He always said that when, in about 1950, he first observed chlorine-oxygen radicals, it was the smoking gun which a generation later was to lead to these same radicals being blamed for destroying the ozone layer. His later research utilised flash photolysis to study the minutiae of the light reactions of photosynthesis, with particular regard to possible applications to a hydrogen economy, of which he was a strong advocate.

He was well known as a populariser of science, a familiar face on television and a frequent giver of public lectures at the Royal Institution. In 1978 he was invited to give the Romanes Lecture at the University of Oxford, entitled "Science and the human purpose"; and in 1988 he gave the Dimbleby Lecture, "Knowledge itself is power". He was a passionate believer in education, and in the worth of inter-disciplinary studies, shown by his Presidency of the British Association in 1985 and becoming the founding Chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS). As President of the Royal Society, he started a long-overdue dialogue with the Royal Institution and also became known as "Mrs Thatcher's favourite scientist", whom she turned to for advice on matters scientific.

Porter served as Chancellor of the University of Leicester between 1986 and 1995. In 2001, the University's chemistry building was named the George Porter Building in his honour.

The text of this article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article on George Porter. Photograph from Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1963-1970, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972.