Roy Porter

Michael Hunter reflects on the life of the late Roy Porter.

It is distressing to have to make a posthumous assessment of the intellectual attainments of a figure who, in the normal course of things, should have been with us for another two decades. What one will miss most about Roy Porter is his personality, his infectious, bubbling enthusiasm for any topic that he talked about, and his ability to enthuse even an audience of sullen undergraduates with a light-hearted lecture on a favourite theme. It will also seem strange no longer to be able to turn on the radio and hear his voice in one of the innumerable talk shows in which he participated. But it is a tribute to Roy that one is left in no doubt as to what his achievement was: his intellectual legacy is secure in the myriad of books he wrote or edited, and in his larger contribution to the intellectual scene.

It is perhaps appropriate to start where Roy did – in the history of science. His first book, The Making of Geology: Earth Science in Britain 1660-1830 (1977), was based on his doctoral thesis, and it took an unusually broad view of its subject, laying stress on the milieux in which ideas were conceived, circulated and discussed. Even before this was published, Roy had in 1973 become editor of the academic journal History of Science, in conjunction with its revamping from an annual volume to a quarterly format. He continued as sole editor of this until his retirement last year, a remarkable record of editorial longevity. It is fair to say that, under Roy’s aegis, this journal became one of the most seminal organs in its field, publishing a disproportionate number of widely cited papers, its avowed aim being the discussion of problems and approaches rather than the publication of straightforward research articles.

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