Arthur Espie Porritt was born at Wanganui on 10 August 1900, the son of Ernest Edward Porritt, a medical practitioner, and his wife, Ivy Elizabeth McKenzie. His mother died in 1914 during his first year at Wanganui Collegiate School and, as his father left soon after to serve in the First World War, he boarded over the following four years, becoming a prefect, athletics champion, and a member of the First XV. In 1919 he taught Latin and other subjects and was the sole games master at Croydon School, Days Bay. The following year he began studying towards a medical degree at the University of Otago.
In 1923 Porritt was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and he studied medicine from 1924 to 1926 at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. He later claimed that the course took him no further than he had reached in Dunedin and gave him ‘time to be a bit athletic ... and play some rugby’. In 1924 he represented New Zealand at the Olympic Games in Paris, winning a bronze medal in the 100 metres. He also won two heats in the 200 metres, but came fifth in the semi-final. The 100-metre race was later immortalised in the film Chariots of fire, but due to Porritt’s modesty – and to the bewilderment of many New Zealanders – the bronze medallist was portrayed by a fictional ‘Tom Watson’. After the games Porritt beat the Olympic gold winner, Harold Abrahams, over 100 yards, and in 1925 set an Oxford–Cambridge record for that distance. It stood until 1962.
Porritt was captain of the New Zealand team at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, but withdrew from the 100 metres because of injury. Although he did not run again for New Zealand, he had a profound influence on the country’s role at Olympic and Commonwealth games. In 1934 he managed the New Zealand team at the British Empire Games in London, and in 1936 he filled the same position at the Olympic Games in Berlin. There, at Jack Lovelock’s request, he made the decision that saw Lovelock compete in the 1,500 rather than the 5,000 metres.
Porritt was the New Zealand member of the International Olympic Committee from 1934 to 1967; he was on its executive board for 10 years and was the first president of its medical commission. He was also chairman of the British Empire Games Federation (later the Commonwealth Games Federation) for 20 years. When New Zealand teams arrived in London he was always there to greet them, arranging accommodation, medical treatment and facilities for training. He continued attending Olympic and Commonwealth games into his 80s, taking a particular interest in the New Zealanders.
On leaving Oxford, Porritt married Mary Frances Wynne Bond in London on 15 July 1926. In the same year he became a house surgeon at St Mary’s Hospital, London. His qualifications included MB, MCh and FRCS. He practised in Harley Street and later in Upper Wimpole Street as a consulting surgeon, with a special interest in breast and abdominal surgery, and was associated with St Mary’s and other teaching hospitals until the mid 1960s. Over the years he became known as an ‘ever kind and considerate doctor much loved by his patients; a tireless worker; an expert teacher … an ideal member of staff for an undergraduate hospital’. As well as writing papers on surgery, he was co-editor of The essentials of modern surgery (1938) and co-author of Athletics (1929).
During the Second World War Porritt was a brigadier in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in France until after the evacuation from Dunkirk, then in Egypt, and later landing in Normandy on D-Day. He was twice mentioned in dispatches, made an OBE in 1943 and a CBE in 1945, and was appointed an officer in the US Legion of Merit. By 1946 he and his wife had divorced, and on 20 December that year in London he married Kathleen Mary Peck; they were to have two sons and a daughter.
Porritt was surgeon to King George VI from 1946 and sergeant surgeon to Queen Elizabeth II from 1952 to 1967. He was appointed a KCMG in 1950 and a KCVO in 1957. He became president in 1960 of both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Surgeons of England, the first person to hold the two positions simultaneously, and retained the presidency of the RCS until 1963. He chaired the African Medical and Research Foundation for nine years. He was awarded numerous honorary fellowships and degrees, including LLDs from the universities of New Zealand and Otago. In 1963 he was made a baronet.
In 1967 Porritt returned to New Zealand as the country’s 11th governor general, and the first born in New Zealand. His term marked a turning-point in the country’s constitutional history: his successors have all been New Zealand citizens and residents. New Zealand society had changed greatly since Porritt’s departure, and his appointment reflected a growing desire among New Zealanders to run their own affairs and adopt a more independent international position. His quiet and formal manner may have disappointed those who thought he would be more like ‘one of them’, but he carried out his duties conscientiously and without controversy. An athletic stadium in Hamilton was named for him, along with streets in Wanganui and Wellington and a house at his old school.
At the end of his term in September 1972 Porritt returned to England. In 1973 he was created a life peer, taking the title Baron Porritt of Wanganui and Hampstead, and including in his coat of arms two fern fronds and a tui. Sitting in the House of Lords as an independent member, he strenuously opposed the immigration laws that would make it more difficult for New Zealanders to live and work in Britain. He kept in touch with New Zealand events and visited the country three times after retiring as governor general.
Arthur Porritt died in London, aged 93, on 1 January 1994, survived by his wife and three children. He had been one of his generation’s best-known expatriates, who in his own words became a ‘complete Pommy’, but ‘never ceased to be a New Zealander’.