Q: Who Was Nathaniel Potter?

Q: Who Was Nathaniel Potter? -Casey Russ

by Michael Redmon

Dr. William D. Sansum, a pioneer in diabetes research, is a familiar name to most Santa Barbarans, if for no other reason because of the medical clinic that bears his name. Less well known is the man who preceded Sansum in Santa Barbara, a medical pioneer in his own right, Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch Potter.

Potter was born on Christmas Day, 1869, in New York State. Even as a child he was fascinated by medicine and determined early on to become a doctor. After earning an AB at the City College of New York in 1888, and a second AB from Harvard University two years later, he went on to Harvard Medical School, where he earned his MD in 1896. He also spent two years studying in Vienna.

Potter eventually settled in New York City where he focused his research on three diseases: diabetes, gout, and nephritis. The year 1911 turned out to be a bittersweet one for him. Along with the birth of his second daughter, he found out that he himself was suffering from diabetes, a disease which, in that time, almost inevitably brought a death sentence.

Potter determined to keep his condition a secret and to carry on with his research for as long as possible. He wrote a friend in England in fall 1915, “I have been quite ill, the nature, degree, and knowledge of my illness I am still concealing from as large a portion of my world as possible, in the hopes of prolonging and still utilizing the efficiency which remains in me.”

Fate dealt another cruel blow to the Potter family that year when the youngest daughter, Mary, was diagnosed with leukemia. Potter’s colleagues rallied around him, expending time and all their talents in a bid to save the girl’s life, but to no avail. In 1916 Potter founded, with money from the Carnegie Corporation and others, the Memorial Laboratory and Clinic for the Study and Treatment of Nephritis, Gout, and Diabetes to honor his young daughter. The clinic soon developed a national reputation, its director held in the highest regard.

Although only in his forties, Potter’s diabetic affliction, along with a number of other maladies, weighed ever more heavily upon him. Told in no uncertain terms that the harsh eastern winters would likely kill him, he decided to relocate to the sunny climate of Southern California after being reassured that the funding for his clinic would remain secure. He chose Santa Barbara, a nationally known health resort. It is quite possible that Henry Pritchett, head of the Carnegie Foundation, who had a home in Santa Barbara, may have had a hand in the doctor’s decision.

By the time of his move in 1917, Potter was seriously ill. Nevertheless, working closely with Cottage Hospital, he threw himself into setting up his clinic. The Potter Metabolic Clinic very soon enjoyed as high a reputation as its New York predecessor. Potter felt that Santa Barbara’s mild climate and beautiful surroundings could only help his patients.

There was to be no help for Dr. Potter, however. Growing ever weaker, he began to make his rounds in a wheelchair; when this was beyond his strength, he had selected patients visit him at home. Nathaniel Potter died in San Francisco on July 5, 1919, six months short of his 50th birthday. Flags in Santa Barbara flew at half-mast upon news of his passing.

In October 1919, the new Potter Metabolic Clinic wing at Cottage Hospital was formally dedicated. And in September 1920 a letter was sent to Dr. William Sansum in Chicago asking him to take up the directorship of the clinic. Sansum was to become a major figure in the development of insulin. The discovery of this “miracle drug” came too late to save Nathaniel Potter, but his legacy would live on in the work of others.

Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara’s history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 West Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101

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