Porter, one of the most distinguished protein chemists and immunologists in Britain, was born and educated in Lancashire, graduating from Liverpool University in 1939; the outbreak of World War II interrupted the doctoral research he began there and Porter served in the Royal Engineers until December 1945, rising to the rank of major. He returned to research at Cambridge as the first graduate student of Frederick Sanger. He obtained his doctorate in 1948 and the following year joined the scientific staff of the National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill, London, collaborating with A.J.P. Martin; this was the period of his first crucial research on antibodies.
In 1960 Porter became the first holder of the Pfizer Professorship of Immunology at St. Mary's Hospital -- the first Chair of Immunology to be created in Britain. His continuing research on antibody structure at this time was helped by funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC) and in large part from the American National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. When the Whitley Chair of Biochemistry at Oxford became vacant on the retirement of Sir Hans Krebs, Porter was invited to accept the appointment, which he held from 1967 until his death. During the Oxford period Porter's research interests moved to the components of the complement system, in the MRC Immunochemistry Unit which he founded and directed. His career was as active and productive as it had ever been when, three weeks before his retirement from the Whitley Chair and the start of full-time commitment to research as the Director of the Immunochemistry Unit, he was killed in a road accident on 6 September 1985.
Porter received many honours and distinctions, nationally and internationally. He was elected to the Royal Society (1964) and to Honorary membership of the National Academy of Sciences (1973); he received the Ciba Medal of the Biochemical Society and a Royal Medal of the Royal Society (1973). In 1972 he received the highest scientific honour when he shared with Gerald Edelman the Nobel Prize for Medicine for determining the chemical structure of an antibody. In 1985 he became a Companion of Honour in the Birthday Honours.
In 1991, Raymond Dwek founded the Oxford Glycobiology Institute at the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford, and this building was named the Rodney Porter building.
Porter spent much of his time in the summer of 1985 preparing for his retirement from the Whitley Chair of Biochemistry and transfer to full-time research at the MRC Immunochemistry Unit. This, unfortunately, seems to have involved wholesale destruction of unwanted or outdated files and the retention only of material which he considered to be of immediate relevance.
The collection is in consequence thin in certain respects and skewed towards the later stages of Porter's career. This applies especially to Sections E (Visits and Conferences) and F (Journals and Publications); the surviving correspondence in Section G has also suffered. Of special personal interest is the sequence of Porter's letters home during his army service, and some of the recollections of Porter by colleagues and friends. Section B is of the greatest scientific interest; it preserves a complete sequence of research notebooks covering almost half a century (1936 - 1985) and providing not only a record of experiments and observations but a direct insight into Porter's methods of work and especially his tenacity over long periods of trial and disappointment. The books document the early and later successful stages of the work on crystalline papain, the work on complement, and Porter's last research ideas, which continue to form the basis of ongoing experiments. Section D (Organisations and Consultancies), though confined to material of recent date, is also of interest in documenting Porter's continuing service to academic and industrial medical research and his interest in the history of British immunology as shown in his work for the Jenner Trust.
The bulk of the material was received through the courtesy of Dr. K.B.M. Reid from the MRC Immunochemistry Unit at the Department of Biochemistry, Oxford.
The wartime letters and a little biographical material, were received from Mrs. Julia Porter, who retains some additional documents, principally relating to the award of the Nobel Prize, photographs and memorabilia.
The tributes and recollections were assembled and made available by Dr. Lisa Steiner.
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Porter | Rodney Robert | 1917-1985 | protein chemist and immunologist
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