Founder of medical school at Maryland gets headstone, 150 years after death

JACQUES KELLY

January 27, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Until last week, the final resting place of Dr. Nathaniel Potter, an early Baltimore medical giant and a founder of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, went unmarked by a memorial stone.

Although his professional colleagues, who held him in high esteem, provided a burial plot in Green Mount Cemetery, Dr. Potter died 150 years ago in such unfortunate financial condition that his estate did not have money to mark his grave with a granite slab.

The situation went uncorrected until an effort to get a burial stone began a few years ago.

"It was at a family reunion at Centreville, not far from the old Potter home. We started collecting money from family members. That got things started," says William S. Potter II, the physician's great-great-grandnephew and an Ellicott City resident.

Dr. Potter's descendants and the University of Maryland Alumni Association split the $1,000 cost of a tombstone.

Dr. Potter was once considered one of Baltimore's finest teachers of medicine. As the medical school's first professor of the theory and practice of medicine, he educated more than one generation of Marylanders. His portrait still hangs at Davidge Hall, the classic building at Lombard and Greene streets.

"His prognoses were regarded by students and patients as infallible. . . . He lectured from his yellowed and faded manuscript until stopped by death," notes a 1907 history of the medical school.

Students regarded him as a great lecturer and often recalled one of his favorite classroom lines, "I'm damned, gentlemen, if it ain't so!"

The Potter family was among the early 17th century settlers of Rhode Island and some of them moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore.

There was medicine in the Potters' blood. Dr. Zabdiel Potter was a surgeon in the Continental Army. His son, Nathaniel, was born in 1770 in Easton. The family later built a fine mansion at Potter's Landing near Denton. It still stands.

Nathaniel Potter had an excellent medical education. It is said he was the favorite pupil of Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a noted physician who taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Potter arrived in Baltimore in 1797 as the young and rambunctious city was just establishing itself as a major East Coast port. Medical practice here was a sham. Anybody who'd apprenticed with a physician could hang out a shingle. The city lacked a professional medical school. When better educated physicians advocated dissection of the human body for education purposes, mobs attacked their offices.

All this infuriated Dr. Potter, who in 1807 began lecturing with Dr. John Beale Davidge and other medical men. By 1812, they had an official state charter for the UM medical school. These founders dipped into their own pockets, going into debt to establish the institution where Dr. Potter taught until his death.

Dr. Potter also fought the diseases that ravaged the city. Yellow fever swept through Baltimore every summer. During an 1820 epidemic, some 300 people perished. Dr. Potter was convinced the disease was not contagious and attempted to contaminate himself to prove his point.

He railed against stagnant water, filthy housing conditions and other suspected causes of the yellow fever scourge. In some ways, his findings were correct. But never was the mosquito suspected of being the disease's carrier. It would take years to prove this point.

Dr. Potter became embroiled in a lengthy legal dispute when the state -- illegally, as it happened -- took back the charter and, thus, took away the rights of the regents of the medical school in favor of a politically appointed board. Potter was indignant. He spent what money he had on lawyers. Although he ultimately emerged the winner in the battle, he was impoverished.

His "pecuniary embarrassment" embittered him at the end of his life. He even lost his fine Lexington Street residence and took up lesser quarters on St. Paul Street.

He died Jan. 2, 1843. News of his death was the lead local item in both The Sun and Baltimore American.

His University of Maryland friends took out a large printed tribute in the newspapers. They bought him a grave but left it unmarked.

Both of Dr. Potter's daughters never married. They too apparently lacked the money to give him the burial stone he belatedly received.

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