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Porter was born in Stainforth, near Thorne, Yorkshire. He won a scholarship to the University of Leeds and gained his first degree in chemistry. He then served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War.
Porter then went on to do research at Cambridge under 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 reactions of photosynthesis, with particular regard to possible applications to a hydrogen economy, of which he was a strong advocate.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1967 along with Manfred Eigen and Ronald George Wreyford Norrish. Porter was president of the Royal Society 1985–1990, having been elected a Fellow in 1960 and also winning the Davy Medal in 1971, the Rumford Medal in 1978 and the Copley Medal in 1992. He was knighted in 1972 and was made a life peer as Baron Porter of Luddenham, of Luddenham in the County of Kent, in 1990.
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 served as Chancellor of the University of Leicester between 1984 and 1995. In 2001, the University's chemistry building was named the George Porter Building in his honour.