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Portering & philosophy

Arguably the finest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), worked voluntarily at the humble task of portering at Guy's Hospital during World War Two.

Wittgenstein came to Guy's from Austria by way of the University of Manchester, where he studied engineering from 1908, and the University of Cambridge, where he moved in 1911 to study philosophy under Bertrand Russell. Russell described him as being 'perhaps the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and dominating'. Small of stature, with a shock of dark brown hair and piercing blue eyes, Wittgenstein's personal charisma was overwhelming and remarked on by all who met him.

After fighting for Austria in the First World War, Wittgenstein published his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus in 1921, and then returned to Cambridge to receive his PhD. At the end of the viva he is said to have clapped Russell on the shoulder and exclaimed 'Don't worry, I know you'll never understand it'.

He became a lecturer and fellow of Trinity College in 1930. His classes in Cambridge were legendary, with themes ranging over the philosophy of logic and language, the intentionality of thought and language, the critique of metaphysics, solipsism and idealism, the philosophy of mathematics, and, later, sense data and private experience, cause and effect, aesthetics, religious belief and Freudian psychology.

ludwig wittgenstein

Wittgenstein took a surprisingly humble role at Guy’s during the war. Photo:  Ben Richards, Wittgenstein Archive.

The limitations of academic life

Wittgenstein, however, detested Cambridge academic life, and urged his pupils not to become academic philosophers, but to do something decent with their lives. When the war began he was eager to be involved in war work and to be, as he put it, 'where the bombs are falling'. In September 1941, through Professor John Ryle of Guy's Hospital (brother of Wittgenstein's friend the philosopher Gilbert Ryle) he began work as a porter at Guy's. He was employed first as an orderly with responsibility for taking drugs to the wards (where, however, as John Ryle's wife related, he advised the patients not to take them). Later he worked as a laboratory assistant, mixing ointments for dermatology.

He slept at Nuffield House in a room said to be bare except for stacks of the detective magazines he loved. At weekends, he returned to Cambridge and lectured there on Saturday afternoons. Although he was discreet about his presence at Guy's, it seems that many people there knew who he was and even addressed him as 'Professor Wittgenstein'. SF Izzard, who ran the Guy's Pharmacy recalled: 'After working here three weeks, he came and explained how we should be running the place. You see, he was a man who was used to thinking'.

Another dispensary colleague, Roy Fouracre, reported that the philosopher was a virtuoso whistler, who could whistle whole movements of symphonies. In 1950, Wittgenstein wrote ironically to Fouracre: 'I suppose [the news] isn't that they are erecting a huge statue of me in front of Nuffield House … of course, no monument of stone could really show what a wonderful person I am.'

Professor Robin Jacoby of the Department of Psychiatry of Oxford University reports that he and Sebastian Kraemer of the Tavistock Clinic erected a plaque to Wittgenstein near the old Pharmacy in Hunt's House. This seems to have been lost when Hunt's House was rebuilt, but perhaps the time has come to put up a new plaque (or even a statue) to the philosopher at Guy's?

A move into clinical research

At Guy's, Wittgenstein met Drs Roland Grant and Basil Reeve, who were working at the MRC clinical research unit on 'wound shock'. There was no general agreement on the symptoms of 'shock', and he dissuaded the researchers from using the word.

When the blitz ended and there were fewer casualties to study in London, Grant and Reeve moved to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which treated road traffic and industrial casualties. Wittgenstein took up a position as a lab assistant with them and left Guy's on 17 March 1943.

In 1944, he went back to Cambridge, but found lecturing increasingly intolerable, and in 1947 he resigned his chair. He died in Cambridge on 29 April 1951.

Wittgenstein left more than 20,000 pages of his work to be edited by his literary executors. His Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953 and was immediately hailed by many leading philosophers as a work of genius, although others reacted with bafflement and incomprehension. Over the next 40 years, another 15 volumes of his writings, six volumes of notes of his lectures and conversations and a substantial part of his correspondence were published.

Dr Christine Kenyon Jones


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