Porter was born in Stainforth, near Thorne, South Yorkshire. He was educated at Thorne Grammar School, then won a scholarship to the University of Leeds and gained his first degree in chemistry. He was awarded a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1949 for research investigating free radicals produced by photochemical means.
Porter served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. Porter then went on to do research at the University of Cambridge supervised by Ronald George Wreyford Norrish where he began the work that ultimately led to them becoming Nobel Laureates.
His original research in developing the technique of Flash photolysis to obtain information on short-lived molecular species provided the first evidence of free Radicals. His later research utilised the technique to study the minutiae of the Light-dependent reactions of Photosynthesis, with particular regard to possible applications to a Hydrogen economy, of which he was a strong advocate.
Porter became a professor in the Chemistry department at the University of Sheffield in 1954-55. It was here he started his work on Flash Photolysis with equipment designed and made in the departmental workshop. During this tenure he also took part in a television programme describing his work. This was in the "Eye on Research" series. Porter became Fullerian Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Royal Institution in 1966. During his directorship of the Royal Institution, Porter was instrumental in the setting up of Applied Photophysics, a company created to supply instrumentation based on his group's work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967 along with Manfred Eigen and Ronald George Wreyford Norrish. In the same year he became a Visiting Professor at University College London.
Porter was a major contributor to the Public Understanding of science. He became president of the British Association in 1985 and was the founding Chair of the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS). He gave the Romanes Lecture, entitled "Science and the human purpose", at the University of Oxford in 1978; and in 1988 he gave the Dimbleby Lecture, "Knowledge itself is power". From 1990 to 1993 he gave the Gresham lectures in astronomy.
Porter was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1960 and served as President of the Royal Society from 1985–1990. He was also awarded the Davy Medal in 1971, the Rumford Medal in 1978, the Ellison-Cliffe Medal in 1991 and the Copley Medal in 1992.
He was knighted in 1972, appointed to the Order of Merit in 1989, and was made a life peer as Baron Porter of Luddenham, of Luddenham in the County of Kent, in 1990. In 1995, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Laws) from the University of Bath.
In 1949 he married Stella Jean Brooke.
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