Roy Porter

British historian of medicine

Roy Sydney Porter (31 December 19463 March 2002) was a British historian noted for his prolific work on the history of medicine.

Quotes edit

  • I wish to explore what mad people meant to say, what was on their minds. Their testimonies are eloquent of their hopes and fears, the injustices they suffered, above all of what it was like to be mad or to be thought to be mad...
    My points of reference, therefore, are language, history and culture.
    • Toy Porter book (1987) A Social History of Madness: Stories of the Insane. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • The cultural tradition of which the Greek language is the focal point has the longest unbroken history of any in Europe. The Greek state, however, was newly born out of the conflict of 1821-8 and was without precedent in the history of the Greeks. The newly defined nation therefore had, as a matter of urgency, to create its own past, that is, to select and endorse those elements of earlier Greek history which retrospectively could claim to have made the present existence and future aspirations of the nation inevitable. Since the state itself was in many ways the creation of European Romanticism, it was only natural that the means to hand for defining and justifying its existence should derive from the same source.
    • Roderick Beaton, Mikuláš Teich & Roy Porter (1988). Romanticism in national context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 99. ISBN 0-521-33913-8. 
  • The irony is that the healthier Western society becomes, the more medicine it craves... Immense pressures are created – by the medical profession, by the media, by the high pressure advertising of pharmaceutical companies to expand the diagnosis of treatable illnesses. Scares are created, people are bamboozled into lab tests, often of dubious reliability. Thanks to diagnostic creep or leap, ever more disorders are revealed, extensive and expensive treatments are then urged … [This] is endemic to a system in which an expanding medical establishment, faced with a healthier population, is driven to medicalising normal events, converting risks into diseases and treating trivial complaints with fancy procedures... The law of diminishing returns necessarily applies. Extending life becomes feasible, but it may be a life exposed to degrading neglect as resources grow overstretched. What an ignominious destiny if the future of medicine turns into bestowing meagre increments of unenjoyed life?

The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity (1997) edit

Roy Porter (1997) The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. W.W. Norton & Company.

  • These are strange times, when we are healthier than ever but more anxious about our health. According to all the standard benchmarks, we've never had it so healthy. Longevity in the West continues to rise -- a typical British woman can now expect to live to seventy-nine, eight years more than just half a century ago, and over double the life expectation when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Break the figures down a bit and you find other encouraging signs even in the recent past; in 1950, the UK experienced 26,000 infant deaths; within half a century that had fallen by 80 per cent. Deaths in the UK from infectious diseases nearly halved between 1970 and 1992; between 1971 and 1991 stroke deaths dropped by 40 per cent and coronary heart disease fatalities by 19 per cent -- and those are diseases widely perceived to be worsening.
    • Introduction, lead paragraph; as cited 1998
  • The emergence of this high-tech scientific medicine may be a prime example of what William Blake denounced as 'single vision', the kind of myopia which (literally and metaphorically) comes from looking doggedly down a microscope. Single vision has its limitations in explaining the human condition; this is why Coleridge called doctors 'shallow animals', who 'imagine that in the whole system of things there is nothing but Gut and Body'. Hence the ability of medicine to understand and counter pathology has always engendered paradox. Medicine has offered the promise of 'the greatest benefit to mankind', but not always on terms palatable to and compatible with cherished ideals. Nor has it always delivered the goods. The particular powers of medicine, and the paradoxes its rationales generate, are what this book is about.
  • Doctors and “consumers” are becoming locked within a fantasy that everyone has something wrong with them, everyone and everything can be cured.
    • p. 14

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