Dr. Willis Potts- Chicago, 1958

This is Dr. Willis Potts.


I met him this week although he passed away in 1968.

My mother in law Penny is in the midst of an unexpected health crisis and you see Dr Potts operated on her back in 1958. The work of Dr. Potts would have never crossed my path had it not been for the events of this past week. When I learned of his role in my mother in law’s life I knew I had to find out more about him. Rediscovering a passion for learning that I had not seen in myself in my 14 years post college, I found myself over the last few days scouring the internet in an attempt to dive deeply into the life of Dr. Potts.

When they met, Penny was a four-year old from rural Ohio (ie population less than a 1000) and Dr. Potts was a famous cardio thoracic surgeon who was pioneering techniques on children. Penny and her mother made the long journey from the pastures and farmland to the big city of Chicago to see this giant of a physician.

I am in awe of my husband’s grandmother-to live where they lived and how they lived but to find a way to get their daughter the most cutting edge care imaginable at the time. She was a warrior mom who would stop at nothing but the best for her young child.

Dr. Potts packed Penny on ice (not just her heart her whole body) and operated to repair a hole, a congenital defect that had been there since birth.

What we learned this week is that not many children born with this condition at the time survived into adulthood and those that did had complications. You see back then children’s hospitals didn’t spend time operating on these kids. Their primary focus was on things like appendicitis. Dr. Potts was the chief of surgery at Memorial Children’s and resolved that the field of pediatric surgery needed to be expanded and therefore dedicated significant time and resources to changing that in Chicago.

So a young girl and her mother take a chance on a physician and his team thousands of miles from home and the surgery is successful. Not only does it work but she lives for 56 years without a single complication.

 Dr. Potts wrote the following in a book he authored back in 1959, just a year after he operated on Penny:

 “I want to dedicate this book to the child that has the misfortune of being born with a serious deformity. …. The infant with no language but a cry and the child with no words to express the desire to be well and normal ask that we make available to them the benefits of increased knowledge of their surgical diseases”.

I have read that Dr. Potts was a deeply religious man. His faith in God served as the foundation for his work. The belief that we as a society will be judged by how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

Dr. Potts has long since left this earth as has my husband’s grandmother.  But to think that the persistence of this mom and this surgeon lead to the  joyful life of a woman I call my second mom is remarkable.

I struggle to find the words when I live in a moment like this.

When the weight of the knowledge I have discovered bears down on my chest.

The life I have today was made possible by the faith and dedication of a man and a women decades removed from where I sit now.

The only words that make sense are thank you.

2 thoughts on “Dr. Willis Potts- Chicago, 1958

  1. I hardly have words. I was born Jan. of 1959. I was born with a double aortic arch, vascular ring. My parents always told me about the incredible doctors that preformed my surgery, but i really never paid a whole lot of attention to all the fuss. Dr. Potts, Dr. Hollinger, and Dr. Johnson’s signature were on my paperwork from Childrens Memorial so i thought i would see if I could find out if they were still living. I’m amazed at the work they did and feel so special to have had them perform my surgery. I only wish I would have done so sooner as I see Dr. Johnson had passed away earlier this year. To my amazement she was a woman, all these years i was thinking my doctors were all men. I will now try and find the book Dr. Potts had written. My surgery was performed April 17th, 1959 at Childrens in Chicago. Thank you for sharing this information. Im feeling greatful! So glad they could help Penny also, just amazing.

  2. Dr. Potts operated on me in 1960 when I was a had a Duodenal Web I still have the scar which embarrassed me as a young man and which I am proud of today, especially as I learned more about what a pioneer Dr. Potts was. Ironically, I’m headed back to Chicago Tuesday April 2nd for the screening of a new movie “Burden oF Genius” about another surgical pioneer, Dr. Tom Starzl, who is called “the father of transplantation.” The public is invited so feel free to click the link below. I am still looking for copies of Dr. Pott’s books if anyone has any leads. https://www.uchicagomedicine.org/forefront/transplant-articles/2019/march/starzl-burden-of-genius Thank you, Dr. Potts.

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