Designatory Letters: 

Jack Potter was a renowned physician, scientist and academic who enjoyed a distinguished career on both sides of the Atlantic.

The son of a Lanarkshire boy miner who became a minister, he had a formidable example to follow but rose to great achievements in his own chosen career, becoming associate dean of New York University School of Medicine and executive dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

Specialising in rheumatic disease and arthritis, he produced numerous papers and publications, counting among his co-authors a Nobel Prize winner, and was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh while working in New York, an event that prompted the American university to throw an impressive celebration, complete with bagpiper.

Jacobus Louw Potter, always known as Jack, was born in Fife, one of four children of the Rev Robert Douglas Potter and his wife Alice. His father had started his working life at 13, toiling in the Larkhall coal mines to help support his family, but went on to attend the Church of Scotland Institute of Missionary Training in pursuit of his goal to become a minister. He broke off his studies to enlist in the Great War and was seriously wounded and gassed in the trenches.

Young Jack arrived six years after the war ended and, though they did not know it at the time, just 24 hours after his birth the new baby was inextricably linked with the woman who would become his first wife – when their birth announcements appeared in The Scotsman on the same day, 22 November, 1924. Their paths would not cross again for many years but he and Elizabeth Ross, a fellow physician who had arrived in the world three days ahead of him, married in 1949, after he had graduated MB ChB from Edinburgh University where he had studied after leaving Beath High School, Cowdenbeath.

Potter, a talented artist, had originally hoped to go to art school but his mother’s sudden death from a heart attack, when he was a teenager, prompted a change of heart and he decided to study medicine. His first posts included positions as resident surgeon at the capital’s Leith Hospital and medical registrar and research fellow in the rheumatic diseases unit at the Northern General in Edinburgh. In 1952 he joined the medical branch of the Royal Air Force, where he became squadron leader in charge of the medical division, RAF Hospital, Padgate in Cheshire. Returning to Edinburgh in 1954, he spent the bulk of the next eight years as a research fellow at the Northern General, save for a two-year spell in research at the New York University School of Medicine’s pathology department, supported by grants from the United States Public Health Service and the John Polachek Foundation in New York.

By 1962 he was back in America, having emigrated to White Plains, New York. The following year his wife and three children joined him and he spent almost 20 years in the United States, working in various roles including for the Health Research Council of the City of New York and as an associate professor and associate dean of the NYU’s school of medicine. He made a considerable contribution to the medical research community there through his involvement with a number of bodies: as a member of the medical and scientific committee of the city’s Arthritis Foundation; as associate co-ordinator of the New York Metropolitan Regional medical programme and vice-chair of its regional advisory group; and as chairman of the committee for an Independent Health Systems Agency, New York City.

During the 1970s he was also a physician/consultant for the city’s Veterans Administration Hospital and a consultant at New York Infirmary, he served on the executive committee of trustees of Association Medical Schools of New York and New Jersey and as president of the Medical Library Centre, New York and was elected a fellow of the American College of Physicians.

He and Elizabeth, a fellow doctor, shared not only home but academic life, both specialising in rheumatic disease and arthritis, but the family suffered personal tragedy when she died in 1979 while only in her 50s. Two years later her widower returned to Scotland, taking up the post of executive dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Edinburgh University. Two years after that he met Catherine Matthews, known as Rena, and after many years of friendship and courtship, they got married in 2007. Together they shared interests including travel to New York and Italy and classical music.

Potter was an accomplished classical pianist, a talent and life-long interest he inherited from his mother. He played by ear, without formal training, and during the Second World War he wrote the musical score for a film And So Goodbye, made in Cowdenbeath. The 21-minute, black and white production, by a group of enthusiasts who formed The Monarch Film Productions Society, was mostly filmed in Cardenden. It remained forgotten for the next 60 years until the producer’s son, Robin Mitchell, heard about the project. He eventually tracked down a copy and reunited the filmmakers in a viewing in the same Fife church hall where it had first been shown in public in 1944. Mitchell later turned the story of his quest to find the film, and those who made and starred in it, into an award-winning documentary in which Potter featured.

In addition to music, he continued to paint and his other interests included stamp collecting and corresponding with friends and family whose birthdays and anniversaries he always marked with a letter. The recipient of his last piece of writing was his three-year-old great grand-daughter.

Predeceased three months earlier by Rena, he is survived by his daughters Jane and Dorothy, son James and extended family.

First published in the Scotsman, 28 May 2015. Republished with kind permission of the author, Alison Shaw.