Browse Fellows


www Lives

Biographical entry Porritt, Arthur Espie, Baron Porritt of Wanganui and Hampstead (1900 - 1994)

OBE 1943; CBE 1945; KCMG 1950; KCVO 1957; Baronet 1963; CMG 1967; GCVO 1970; Baron 1973; MRCS 1928; FRCS 1930; BA Oxford 1926; MB BCh Oxford 1928; MA and MCh Oxford 1932; Hon FRCSI; Hon FRCS Edinburgh; Hon FRCS Glasgow; Hon FRCP; Hon FRACP; LRCP 1928.

  • Image of Porritt, Arthur Espie, Baron Porritt of Wanganui and Hampstead
Wanganui, New Zealand
1 January 1994
London, UK
General surgeon


Arthur Espie Porritt was born in Wanganui, New Zealand, the elder son of E E Porritt, VD, MD, FRCS, and of Ivy Elizabeth, née Mackenzie, whose father was also a medical practitioner. After education at Wanganui Collegiate School and Otago University, where he had an outstanding athletic record, he secured a Rhodes scholarship to Magdelen College, Oxford, in 1923. He went on to St Mary's Hospital, London, with an Oxford scholarship, qualifying MRCS LRCP London and MB BCh Oxford in 1928, and becoming FRCS in 1930 and later MCh Oxford.

After house surgeon and registrar jobs at St Mary's he was appointed assistant director of the surgical unit there before becoming assistant surgeon and then surgeon to his teaching hospital. He was later also consultant surgeon to King Edward VII Hospital, the Royal Masonic, St John and Elizabeth, Paddington General, the Royal Chelsea, Princess Louise, Kensington Children's and Hitchin Hospitals.

Porritt was an essentially general surgeon with a special interest in breast and abdominal surgery. An ever kind and considerate doctor much loved by his patients, he was a tireless worker, an expert teacher and a true leader. Always cheerful and optimistic, and supremely practical, he was an ideal member of staff for an undergraduate hospital. He was always popular with students, nurses and resident staff who found him most approachable, and he had a wonderful capacity for getting on with people of all ages. In the operating theatre he was quick, decisive, and never out of temper. His busy life did not allow him to publish many papers but his book, Essentials of modern surgery, written with the late R M Handfield-Jones, was popular and widely read and went into six editions between 1939 and 1956. In 1929, with D G A Lowe, he had also written a book on athletics.

Shortly after the outbreak of the second world war he joined the RAMC as a lieutenant-colonel in charge of the surgical division of a hospital with the BEF. After the withdrawal from France he served in Egypt for two years. Recalled to the UK in 1943 he joined 21 Army Group with the rank of brigadier and became a consultant surgeon to Montgomery's army in north-west Europe. On demobilisation he returned to his pre-war work, having been made OBE in 1943 and advanced to CBE in 1945.

From his early school days, Arthur Porritt had made his mark in swimming, riding, rugby and, most notably, in athletics, where his performance soon reached the highest international level. He was already an athlete of national standing before leaving New Zealand: he was a member of the Oxford University athletic team in 1923 and became president in 1925. His sprint record of 9.9 seconds for the 100 yards in the Oxford v Cambridge event remained unbroken for many years. He also achieved records in the 100 and 220 yard hurdles at Oxford before going on to represent his country in the Olympics in Paris in 1924, where he took a bronze for the 100 metres, and in Amsterdam four years later. He again acted as team manager in 1936. Knee trouble in 1928 compelled him to give up competitive running but he became a member of the Olympic International Council, and a member of the Commonwealth Games Federation, of which he was chairman from 1945 to 1966, and later vice-president. He rode with the Burghley hunt until he was 50.

Outside the ambit of his hospital and private work Porritt gave himself unstintingly to many important activities. He served on the College Council from 1950 to 1966 and was President 1960 to 1963. He was honorary Fellow of the Faculties of Dental Surgery and of Anaesthetics, Hunterian orator, Webb-Johnson lecturer and a patron of the College. He was a member and vice-chairman of the trustees of the Hunterian Museum until his death. The very first year of his Presidency of the College he was also President of the British Medical Association, a unique distinction. He performed a notable task as chairman of the Medical Services Review Committee of the BMA: what became known as the 'Porritt Report' put forward a number of valuable ideas and recommendations, some of which were to be subsequently fulfilled. For these services he was awarded the gold medal and honorary fellowship of the BMA, though he had twice resigned his membership in the past.

He was a man of integrity who made close and firm friendships with all manner of people. Not surprisingly, he became an honorary Fellow of every Royal Surgical College in the Commonwealth, as well as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the College of Surgeons of South Africa.

He also held the United States Legion of merit and was a Knight of the Order of St John. He had a particular love for some of the other medical bodies, notably the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, of which he was Master, and of the Hunterian Society, over which he twice presided.

He had been President of the Association of Surgeons of Great Britain and Ireland and was a Fellow of the American Surgical Association and of the French Academy of Surgery. In addition he was patron and past President of the Medical Council on Alcoholism, and had been President of the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention and of the Company of Veteran Motorists.

In 1973 he was appointed Chairman of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council; the African Medical and Research Foundation (amongst other things sponsoring the flying doctor service in East Africa) and also Chairman of the Royal Masonic Hospital.

Prior to the second world war Porritt had been appointed Surgeon-in-Ordinary to the Duke of York. Shortly after the war he became Surgeon to the Royal Household and then Serjeant-Surgeon from 1952 to 1967. He was awarded the KCMG in 1950; the KCVO in 1957 (later advanced to GCMG, 1967 and GCVO, 1970) and a baronetcy in 1963 on completing his period as PRCS. After finishing service on the Council of the College he became President of the Royal Society of Medicine for two years. He considered it fortuitous that his appointment as Governor-General of New Zealand in 1967 compelled him to give up active surgery for he did not think it wise for most surgeons to continue long after retirement from hospital work. He and Lady Porritt then had a very happy and fulfilling five years in the country of his birth.

On his return to Britain Lord Porritt of Hampstead and Wanganui he made a nmber of sincere and thoughtful contributions to the work of the Upper House and continued to attend there until the end of his life. He was a keen Freemason, had been Master of several lodges and became Senior Grand Deacon in 1951 and Junior Grand Warden in 1964. He was a founder member and vice-President of Lord Horder's Fellowship for Freedom in Medicine, which was dedicated to the highest standards of medical care and very much concerned with the freedom of patients as well as doctors.

Porritt was a great ambassador. Apart from his many overseas trips on athletic business (and he attended the Commonwealth Games and Olympics into his ninth decade), he had ranged far and wide for surgery and was a powerful advocate of Britain's finest medical brains and skills being freely available abroad. He was also anxious that foreign medical graduates should be encouraged to study here and, as chairman of the medical advisory committee of the Ministry of Overseas Development, he was well able to further these aims.

His first marriage to Mary Frances Wynne in 1926 was dissolved; in 1946, he married Kathleen Peck who had served as a sister in the QAIMNS during the war. They had two sons and a daughter.

Fully active until a few weeks before his death, Lord Porritt died peacefully at his home in St John's Wood on New Year's Day 1994, aged 93. A portrait by Sir James Gunn hangs in the College.

The Hon Jonathon Espie Porritt, formerly director of Friends of the Earth and one-time Ecology Party parliamentary candidate, inherited the baronetcy and gave the address at his father's service of thanksgiving in St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, on 26 April 1994. The service was attended by the Governor General of New Zealand, the Lord Chancellor, representatives of seven members of the Royal Family, the President and Council of the College, the Chairman and members of the Board of the Hunterian Trustees, the Court of Patrons and a large congregation. This was followed by a reception at New Zealand House.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 4 January 1994; Daily Telegraph 3 January 1994; The Independent 4 January 1994, with portraits.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England