Rare videos of Roy Porter now online

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By | From the Collections

Roy Porter (1946-2002) is justifiably recognised as the most influential historian of medicine of his generation. 

However, despite being a prodigious author, a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radio and a popular lecturer to a range of audiences, not many recordings of him remain. 

The British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue lists a number of items (mostly made for BBC Radio), as does the Wellcome Library’s catalogue.  Very few of these recordings are freely available across the web (a notable exception being an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time).

Given these facts, it’s with a great deal of excitement that we’ve discovered a lecture given by Porter at the New York Academy of Medicine in 1999.  It was recorded by C-Span, a US cable network which specialises in broadcasting federal government deliberations, and is freely available through the C-Span website.

The lecture was in support of Porter’s then newly published The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, his one-volume account of medicine’s history, and broadly consists of a discussion of the book’s themes.  It also includes a detailed discussion of William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, one of the most popular medical books ever published, which Porter situates in the political upheavals of the late 18th century.

We chanced upon this video while putting together a presentation for new students on the Society of Apothecaries Diploma Course in the History of Medicine.  In a nice coincidence, a recording of Porter’s lecture to this course from 1990 is held in our collections.

Such a discovery would be pleasing enough, but a search of C-Span’s archive has found another talk by Porter, also recorded in New York, this time in support of his title, The Creation of the Modern World (2000, published in the UK as Enlightenment): again, this is freely available from the C-Span website.

These videos – whilst also hinting at the prodigious rate of knots Porter published books – are a reminder that digitisation will continue to produce more and more wonderful discoveries such as these.  The challenge for those interested in the history of medicine will be to keep track of them.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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