Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship

Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship

Open

Arthur Porritt: Sprinter, Surgeon and "Most Satisfactory Scholar"

Thursday 04 July, 2024

Later this month, the 33rd Olympic Games start in Paris, 100 years after the games were last held in France. Five Rhodes Scholars competed in the 1924 games, including two gold medalists. But only one came to be featured in an Oscar-winning film based on the race he took part in.

The 1981 film, Chariots of Fire, immortalises the victories of Eric Liddell in the 400m and Harold Abrahams in the 100m. The film depicts a New Zealander, Tom Watson, taking the bronze medal in the 100m; in real life, this was Arthur Porritt (New Zealand & Magdalen 1923), pictured in black on the left of this photo.

1924 Olympics 100M Final

This Sunday marks the centenary of the race, which took place at 7pm on 7 July; Abrahams and Porritt dined together at this time every year thereafter until Abrahams died in 1978. Porritt declined to take part in the film because of concerns over historical accuracy, a decision his son, the prominent environmental campaigner Jonathon Porritt, says he later came to regret.

“Those few seconds, in July 1924, played such an important part in my father's subsequent career", said Jonathon, "especially through his lifetime involvement in both the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games”.

The annual reports to the Rhodes selection committees in the Rhodes Trust's archives paint a picture of a talented and popular student of medicine. In 1923 he was described as "a very nice fellow and we are glad to have him here". 1924's report refers to Porritt possessing “a most unusual combination of celebrity and modesty, capacity and good sense”. and the final report in 1925 says he "has been in every way, an excellent Rhodes Scholar" who has "won as much respect as popularity".

Arthur Porritt Portrait And Report

In 1928, replying to a letter from Porritt’s father, the Warden of Rhodes House, Francis Wylie, provides a masterclass in understatement by referring to Arthur as “a most satisfactory Rhodes Scholar, we are confident he will bring us distinction in the future.”

But Wylie was right. 

In 1926, Porritt was appointed surgeon to the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII; he served as King’s Surgeon to George VI from 1946 to 1952, and Serjeant Surgeon to Elizabeth II until 1967.

He remained involved in athletics, managing the New Zealand team in Berlin in 1936 and  served for many years on the International Olympic Committee and the British Olympic Council.

During the war he served in the Royal Army Medical Corps. During this time he was involved in some of the earlier studies of penicillin, based on the work of fellow Rhodes Scholar, Howard Florey, and published his experiences in a report in 1945.

In 1960 he became the president of both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Surgeons, the first person to hold both positions simultaneously. He was also elected president of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1966.

In 1967 he was appointed the 11th Governor-General of New Zealand, the first to be born in New Zealand. This was a significant moment in the country's history, with all his successors in the role being New Zealanders. At the end of his term of office, he returned to England and the following year was elevated to the House of Lords as a Life Peer. 

100 years on, Arthur Porritt, amongst his many other achievements, remains the only New Zealander to ever win an athletics sprint medal at the Olympics. As Wylie might have said, "most satisfactory".

---

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Wikipedia, Rhodes Trust archives.

Share this article