The kindness of colleagues: Roy Porter and Nick Atkins

Kelly J. Baker has published an excellent piece on ‘Cruelty and kindness in academia‘. Really, you may as well just go and read it now, rather than waste time on my ramblings, but it has made me reflect on two of the kindest people in my own career.

The first and most influential in my life was the late great Roy Porter. Whenever we met at the Wellcome, he’d ask interesting questions about my work and make me think of different ways to approach my evidence. He was always kind to me. He never, ever, tried to score points from his seniority. He knew I was interested in hysteria so, after having me into his office to chat through my ideas, he asked me to write the ‘ancient’ section of a book project, which became Hysteria Beyond Freud (the other writers were Sander Gilman, George S. Rousseau and Elaine Showalter – all serious names, of whom I was by far the most junior). The book was published by the University of California Press in 1993. The process of writing included a conference and lots of conversation, and it was the perfect opportunity to refine ideas from my 1985 PhD thesis.

And he didn’t just ‘use me and drop me’. Because he liked what I did, he asked me to do the social side of an article on ‘Conversion disorder and hysteria’ in History of Clinical Psychiatry (eds G. Berrios and R. Porter), Athlone Press, 1995, 442-450. At that point, I think I was experimenting with writing more in the style of Porter himself, but I grew out of that! Roy also got me invited to an amazing 2-day conference at Blenheim Palace on hysteria/conversion disorder, where I was the only historian of medicine among psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, neuroscientists and hypnotherapists. My role at the conference was to ‘do a Porter’, to comment on other papers from a historical perspective, but although I didn’t write my own paper for the event my presence led to another publication, ‘Recovering hysteria from history: Herodotus and “the first case of shell shock”‘ in the book which eventually came out of the conference: Peter Halligan et al. (eds), Contemporary Approaches to the Science of Hysteria: Clinical and Theoretical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2001), 36-48.

That Blenheim experience also catapulted me into a career of talking with medical professionals (incidentally, the psychotherapists were the group the others bonded together in disdaining…). Without it, I don’t think I would have done many of the outreach things I’ve so much enjoyed.

Only when I looked at my CV just now did I realise how many other publications came about because Roy asked me to do things. In 1994, a chapter on Greek and Roman sexology for a volume on Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science (eds R. Porter and M. Teich), Cambridge University Press. In 1999, a conference paper and then a chapter on ‘Comparative perspectives on medicine and religion in the ancient world’. What I think I have only realised now is that Roy pushed my boundaries; it wasn’t just his faith in me but also his own breadth as a historian that made me think, OK, I can write something on that!

On 4 March, 2002, I was in my office at the University of Reading. Roy had very recently taken early retirement and was living not far from my parents in East Sussex. My mother phoned and told me there had been a mention on the local news of a professor in his mid fifties who had been found dead with no obvious cause. She wanted to know how old Roy was. I confirmed his age, but couldn’t believe it was the same person. There must be others who fitted this very vague description. As the afternoon went on, email traffic increased as medical history colleagues picked up the news and asked whether this was Roy.

It was, of course.

He had been cycling to his allotment. The Torygraph obituary observed:

Porter was always prodigiously hardworking, yet towards the end of his life, found himself increasingly frustrated by the bureaucratic demands of academe.
Before taking early retirement from the Wellcome Trust last year, he expressed a wish to take up a musical instrument, learn to act and cultivate his garden. “Time is wasting us all,” he said. “I’m 55, I don’t know how much longer I have to live, and I want to get many things done.”

For someone taking early retirement herself, that is a ‘pulls you up short’ comment.

Was it that same day or the following day, I wonder, that I experienced yet more kindness? Probably that same afternoon. I remember being in my office, shellshocked by Roy’s untimely death. My Head of School, Nick Atkins, knew of the Porter connection so as news broke he came down to see me. As soon as he said something, I burst into tears. We had a chat and he told me, firmly, to cancel everything and go home.

Nick himself died in 2009, at the age of 49; another very kind, humane, historian.

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2 thoughts on “The kindness of colleagues: Roy Porter and Nick Atkins

  1. Generosity (with ideas, time, contacts) is rarely given its deserved dues in academia. I wasn’t fortunate enough to know Roy, but have had experience of how valuable generosity is especially in supervision and with colleagues in my field. And I did know Nick – what a lovely man.

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