With the death of George Porter on 31 August 2002 in Canterbury, England, the scientific community and the world at large have lost one of the key scientists of the post-1945 period. Porter was not only a Nobel Prize-winning physical chemist, but was deeply involved in promoting science.

Both the research and science communication aspects of his career were fulfilled by his directorship of the Royal Institution in succession to Lawrence Bragg. Porter had been a part-time professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution and, in 1960, had edited Michael Faraday’s Advice to a Lecturer (Royal Institution). Faraday was Porter’s hero; in many ways, Porter sought to emulate him insofar as the conditions of late 20th-century science and society would allow. As reflected in Porter’s book Chemistry for the Modern World (G. G. Harrap, 1962), Porter, like Faraday, was not only an enormously distinguished scientific figure, but was deeply involved in communicating science to a broad audience.

Porter was born in Stainforth, Yorkshire, on 6 December 1920 and attended Thorne Grammar School, where his interest in science began. His father bought him an old bus so that he could undertake experiments away from the house! After leaving school in 1938, Porter studied chemistry as an Ackroyd scholar at the University of Leeds and developed his particular interest in physical chemistry. He also took a course in radio physics. He put his knowledge of radio physics to good use when, after graduating, he joined the war effort in 1941 as a radar officer in the Royal Navy.

Following demobilization in 1945, he became a research student with photochemist Ronald Norrish at the University of Cambridge. During that time, Porter developed the ideas and experimental strategies that allowed him and, later, his research groups to make their fundamental discoveries in photochemistry. Norrish was interested in understanding chemical reactions caused by intense beams of light produced by an arc lamp. At that time, Norrish and others studied such reactions by analyzing the stable products.

In 1947, Porter realized that the way to tackle the problem of identifying short-lived intermediates in photochemical reactions was to use highly intense short pulses of light for excitation, rather than a weaker continuous beam as Norrish had done. The intermediates thus created could be detected either by a second continuous weak beam of light or by a second pulse of light delayed in time with respect to the exciting flash. This so-called flash photolysis was the first “pump-and-probe” technique. It has proved immensely fruitful in understanding short-lived transient molecules and molecular fragments, and it was for the invention of flash photolysis that Norrish and Porter shared the 1967 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Manfred Eigen of the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany. By 1950, Porter could study molecules that existed for less than a millisecond. By 1960, micro-seconds were routine, but the invention of the laser by Theodore Maiman in 1960 made it possible to use even shorter flashes of light, and Porter was one of the earliest people to exploit the scientific potential of the laser. By the time he joined the Royal Institution in the 1960s, he could study reactions of a nanosecond’s duration and, by 1975, of a picosecond (light travels about 3 mm in that time). By the time he had moved to Imperial College, London, in 1985, the femtosecond timescale had become accessible and was widely used to study photosynthesis among other subjects.

During nearly 10 years at Cambridge, Porter became a demonstrator in physical chemistry in 1949 and the assistant director of physical chemistry research three years later. In 1954, he worked in Manchester for a year as assistant director of the British Rayon Research Association, where he sought to understand the essentially photochemical problems surrounding the fading of fabric dyes. The following year, he was appointed professor of physical chemistry at the University of Sheffield and, in 1963, became Firth Professor and the head of the department.

His appointment to the Royal Institution in 1963 to become a part-time chemistry professor was followed by his move there in 1966 as director, which entailed both continuity and change. Porter pursued and enhanced the programs and policies initiated and implemented patiently by Bragg following the deep trauma created in the early 1950s by the row between the secretary of the Royal Institution, Alexander Rankine, and the directory of the laboratory, Edward Andrade, over who ran the Royal Institution—an affair that had nearly destroyed the Royal Institution. Porter, though, wished to bring his research group from Sheffield; that move spelled the end of x-ray crystallography research that, since 1923, had been the main research topic in the Royal Institution’s Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory. During Porter’s directorship from 1966 to 1985, he streamlined the institution’s administration, enhanced the schools’ lectures program, began the immensely successful mathematics masterclass program, and raised considerable funds for the refurbishment of the building. This refurbishment included building, in the basement, a museum devoted entirely to the life and work of Faraday. In 1973, the museum was opened by Queen Elizabeth during the first visit by a reigning monarch to the Royal Institution. Porter showed the queen around and offered a demonstration of the Royal Institution’s research, as shown in the photo on page 94.

In science communication, Porter was responsible for establishing the annual TV broadcast of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures (of which he gave two highly successful series himself). He was the driving force behind the British Broadcasting Corporation’s “Young Scientists of the Year,” in which school science projects were judged by panels that would usually comprise some combination of Porter, Richard Gregory, Heinz Wolf, and Eric Laithwaite.

In 1985, Porter was elected president of the Royal Society. He used the unique opportunity as president of this society, director of the Royal Institution, and president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to establish, for the three organizations, a joint Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS). He chaired that committee himself for the first four years. During that time, the science budget was drastically cut, and he used his position as president of the Royal Society to sharply criticize government science policy, although he welcomed the inclusion of science in the National Curriculum.

As a consequence of his election to the Royal Society presidency, Porter decided that he should retire from the directorship of the Royal Institution. Most of his research group moved to the Centre for Photomolecular Sciences, newly created for him at Imperial College, where he also chaired the newly created Imperial College Press. Following the end of his term of office at the Royal Society, Porter continued with his research at Imperial College. He also continued to promote science, particularly through his position in the House of Lords, after he had been created a Life Peer in 1990.

Porter was awarded innumerable medals, prizes, and honorary degrees, including the Order of Merit in 1989. Notwithstanding his fame, he was a polite, courteous, stylish man, who cared deeply about his young colleagues and was passionate about science—his own and in general. He is missed.