Edith Potter


Edith Potter, a personal friend and colleague, made more contributions to the field of obstetrics and gynecology than most obstetricians and gynecologists. Edith was a pathologist and, in particular, a perinatal pathologist. I often told her that she was the mother of perinatal pathology in the world today.

Most individuals do not know that the term "perinatal" was coined by Dr. Potter, and she was given credit for this by Dr. Nicholas J. Eastman, head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Johns Hopkins University, in 1952 during a meeting. Dr. Potter spent her entire life in the area of perinatal pathology, making significant contributions to science.

Her interest in perinatal pathology began when she was a medical student in the early 1920s at the University of Minnesota, and it continued when she came to Chicago Lying-in Hospital and the University of Chicago to spend 2 years in a fellowship program and remained for 33 more years before retiring from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Herman Bundesen, the head of the Chicago Health Department in 1936, asked Dr. Potter at Chicago Lying-in Hospital how the infant death rate could be reduced because it was unusually high. Dr. Potter did autopsies and histories on more than 10,000 infants who died within the first 28 days of life. In 1952, she wrote a 273-page book describing the mortality per 1000 live births, which was 871 for infants weighing less than 1000 gm.

Much of the information that was obtained from this study was published in a book by Dr. Potter titled Pathology of the Fetus and Newborn, which was first published in 1952 and subsequently went through two editions. During this time, the autopsies led to the observation that a maternal history with a lack of amniotic fluid resulted in an unusual position for the legs and feet of the fetus that had an absence of kidneys. This was first published in 1946. The syndrome became known as Potter's syndrome, named after Dr. Edith Potter.

Her meticulous studies exploring the anatomic and microscopic science of the fetus and newborn led to an additional publication of the normal and abnormal development of the kidney of the fetus, which also was a landmark publication. She was also involved with the early studies of diethylstilbestrol, and in 1948 she published an article that showed no abnormalities in any of the fetuses studied in women who had taken diethylstilbestrol.

One of the great joys that Dr. Potter had was realizing that she had made a contribution to an understanding of the causes of death of the fetus and newborn when the mortality rate was 30.4 per 1000 live births in 1934 and had dropped to 7.8 per 1000 in 1985, some 50 years later when she retired from the University of Chicago.

We owe much to Edith Potter. She was more than a perinatal pathologist. She was also a botanical pathologist. When she retired from the University of Chicago, she and her husband, a gifted sculptor, built a very unique home in one of Thomas Edison's botanical gardens in Fort Myers, Florida. Here she studied botanical pathology and became quite distinguished in this area.

It was indeed a distinct pleasure to have been a friend and colleague of Edith Potter. She loved her colleagues from the Chicago Lying-in Hospital family, and we all appreciated her presence when we were together.

So few do so much, and we identify Dr. Potter as one of these few special individuals.

Submitted by Frederick P. Zuspan

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