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Biographical entry Potter, John McEwen (1920 - 2002)

MRCS 1943; FRCS 1951; MB BChir Cambridge 1943; MA 1945; BM BCh Oxford 1963; DM Oxford 1964; LRCP 1943.

28 February 1920
6 February 2002


John Potter was a consultant neurosurgeon and director of postgraduate education at Oxford. He was born in London on 28 February 1920. His father, Alistair Richardson Potter, was a brewer. His mother was Mairi Chalmers née Dick, a housewife whose father had edited the songs of Robert Burns. He was educated at Clifton and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He did his clinical training at St Bartholomew's, where he was house surgeon and junior chief assistant to Sir James Paterson Ross, who had an interest in neurosurgery, and he was later house surgeon to John O'Connell, consultant neurosurgeon. He served in the RAMC from 1944 to 1947 with the rank of Captain, as a graded neurosurgeon, and saw service in Europe, India and Burma, where he commanded a neurosurgical team.

After the war, he returned to Bart's as a lecturer in physiology. With D A MacDonald he worked on the cerebral circulation, using rabbits to examine flow in the cerebral arteries. A number of papers were published in the Journal of Physiology and in Nature, detailing the technique which involved exposing the base of the brain and the cerebral cortex and recording events microscopically and by high speed cinematography. They demonstrated that flow in the basilar artery was laminar, and that there was a dead point between the anterior and posterior circulations, probably in the posterior communicating artery, which could be shifted backwards or forwards by occluding major vessels, thus confirming the circle of Willis as a compensatory anastomotic system.

In 1951 he moved to Oxford, as graduate assistant to Sir Hugh Cairns in neurosurgery. In 1954 he was awarded the E G Fearnsides scholarship from Cambridge University and in 1955 was Hunterian Professor of the College, his address being on cerebral angiomas. He was appointed consultant neurosurgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary in 1956, where he remained until he was invited back to an appointment in Oxford in 1961.

His earlier papers demonstrated a continued occupation with cerebral vascular pathology and the problems of aneurysm surgery, but he maintained an interest in head injuries, with which he had been involved during the war, and in 1961 wrote an important manual The Practical management of head injuries (London, Lloyd-Luke [Medical Books]) which was influential in educating junior staff in the handling of these cases. At Oxford he was actively concerned with the care of patients with head injuries and trained a succession of accident service registrars. He was a member of a number of foreign academic neurosurgical societies and was a visiting professor at the University of California.

Potter was always interested in teaching and was appointed director of postgraduate medical education in Oxford in 1972, a position he occupied for 15 years, during which time he revitalised postgraduate medical education, although the post naturally led to a relinquishment of clinical work. New teaching centres were established throughout the region. He was especially interested in the welfare and education of junior doctors.

In the latter part of his career he was much involved in committee work, serving on the General Medical Council for 16 years, and as chairman of its registration committee for 10. He also served as a governor of the United Oxford Hospitals and on the University Hebdomadal Council. He was a knowledgeable, well-informed and iconoclastic contributor to these bodies. In 1967 he was elected a fellow of Linacre College and transferred to a professorial fellowship in Wadham two years later.

Potter was a man of literary interests and his study of the celebrated warden of New College, Dr Spooner, involved considerable documentary work, searching for written equivalents of Spooner's famous - sometimes perhaps apocryphal - verbal eccentricities. He also wrote on Robert Bridges, the poet who had qualified in medicine at Bart's, and on Percivall Pott. Potter had a great interest in natural history and horticulture, and was for some years a curator of the University Parks. He was also an accomplished fly-fisherman.

In 1943 he married Kathleen Gerrard, a Bart's nurse. There were three sons, Jim, Andrew and Simon, none of whom took up medicine. He also had eight granddaughters and two great granddaughters. He died on 6 February 2002 of carcinoma of the prostate.

Sources used to compile this entry: [BMJ 2002 324 741, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England