Lawrence A. Pottenger

Lawrence A. Pottenger
born May 21, 1944, in DeKalb, Illinois
died September 25, 2006, in Chicago, Illinois


Surgeon was ‘the guy other physicians went to see’

More than 10,000 people around the world are walking with new hips and knees thanks to Dr. Lawrence Pottenger’s research and surgery. His colleagues described the orthopedic surgeon as “the guy that other physicians went to see.” His patients came to appreciate his role as “a healer,” as he provided them with a soothing touch and absorbed their stories as an experience. ‘He knew everything’  His family knew him as “a guy who could not sit,” and a walking wealth of information. “We didn’t need Google,” said his wife, Barbara. “He literally knew everything.”

Dr. Pottenger’s five-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease ended when he died last week. He was 62. With a deep love of learning and knowledge that spanned subjects, his family described the disease’s impact as “devastating,” and he stopped treating patients in 2003. Hardly pretentious, he preferred not to be called “doctor” outside of the hospital and was just known as Larry. “He really was a humble guy,” Barbara Pottenger said.

Though work allowed him to travel abroad, he loved taking his family west — to explore the Teton mountains, hike and immerse himself in Native American culture.  “Even on vacation, he just never stopped,” his wife said. “We’d be up at 5 a.m., ready to go, waiting for the restaurant door to open. He wasn’t a guy who could just sit.”

That drive was apparent in his work, as Dr. Pottenger performed about 350 surgeries a year for 25 years, according to University of Chicago Hospital officials. In addition to developing less-invasive procedures for hip surgery and introducing more-reliable techniques for the procedures, Dr. Pottenger also did research on designing artificial joints and the progression of osteoarthritis, hospital officials said. He also partnered with Dr. Louis Draganich to develop the Two Radius Area Contact, a more-durable replacement knee joint that has been used by thousands of younger and active surgery patients.


In a release, Draganich called Dr. Pottenger “a treat to work with,” adding that he was “brilliant but unconventional” and “saw things that no one else would think of.” And though he made his mark in surgery and research, he developed a knack for interacting with patients, deciding that he could be “a healer.” “You begin to be a healer when you start to feel what patients are feeling,” he wrote in an unfinished book. “Listen to their stories. Let yourself be lost in their stories.” He was thrown in the middle of a medical ethics controversy in the 1980s when a patient with AIDS needed a knee operation — and Dr. Pottenger didn’t hesitate to help him. “Nobody in the city would operate on that kid,” Barbara Pottenger said. “But he said to me, ‘I have to do this.’ “

Barbara Pottenger and their children, Katherine and Lindsey, have established a fund in his name with the Alzheimer’s Association where all money will go toward research for early onset of the disease. “We’re dedicated to education in that area,” she said. “There’s just nothing there.”

There will be a memorial service for Dr. Pottenger on Oct. 21 in the university’s Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.1


Upon returning to his office each day after hours in surgery, Dr. Lawrence Pottenger would collect dozens of pink messages taped to his office door and sit down to return every call. “After a long day of work, he would start calling all these people,” said Dr. Michael Simon, a friend and colleague. “He wanted that personal touch. People view surgeons as being detached from patients, but he was not. He was totally committed to them.” It was a daily ritual reflective of a lifelong commitment to medicine, friends and family said. For more than 25 years, Dr. Pottenger was an orthopedic surgeon and professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, where he received his undergraduate, medical and doctoral degrees.

Dr. Pottenger, 62, of Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood, died of complications of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease Monday, Sept. 25, in the University of Chicago Hospitals, his family said. Dr. Pottenger was raised in DeKalb, where his parents owned a produce company. He moved to Chicago in 1962 to attend school and returned to the city in 1979 after a five-year residency at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he met his wife, Barbara, a recovery room nurse. Although he was groomed for research, Dr. Pottenger grew to enjoy interacting with patients more, friends and family said. He started as a pediatric specialist but spent most of his career as an arthritis surgeon, performing almost 350 hip and knee replacements per year.
“[His patients] felt empathy and healing from him,” his daughter Katherine said. “He cared about them as people, not just as a knee or a hip.” Between teaching medical students and seeing patients, Dr. Pottenger found time to design an artificial knee to provide a wider range of motion for younger patients. The artificial knee has been implanted in thousands of patients internationally, hospital representatives said.

Outside the office, Dr. Pottenger enjoyed gardening and hiking and looked forward to family road trips to Colorado and Wyoming. He attended museums and the symphony, but most of all he enjoyed reading medical research and studying Native American history and spirituality. “He loved learning,” his wife said. “He was like a sponge.”

Dr. Pottenger tried to impart the inspiration behind his life’s work to his two daughters. When they were younger, he took them to watch operations from outside the operating room. The lesson came in handy when his health began to deteriorate. “One of the major things he taught us is how to be a caregiver,” Katherine Pottenger said.

Dr. Pottenger was chairman of orthopedics at the U. of C. from 1984 to 1986 and vice chairman from 1986 to 1992. He was on boards of the Association of Orthopedic Chairmen, the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery and the Orthopedic Research Society. He was a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Surgical Research, the hospital said. He also became interested in medical ethics. He wrote several papers on his struggle over operating on patients with AIDS in the 1980s, when few doctors would, Simon said. “It always perplexed him a lot. There was a lot of fright going on, and physicians would shy away from it,” Simon said. “Early on, he became an advocate for operating on AIDS patients.”

In retirement, Dr. Pottenger began writing a book about the importance of doctors as healers, based on his experiences. “You begin to be a healer when you start to feel what a patient is feeling,” he wrote. “Listen to their stories. Let yourself be lost in their stories. Do not judge them or try to fit their stories into your system of values. Do not try to analyze their stories, just experience them.”

Other survivors include a daughter, Lindsey; two brothers, Eugene and Gary; and a sister, Chelon Stanzel. A service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 in Rockefeller Chapel on the U. of C. campus.2

photo of Lawrence Pottenger tombstone

1. Chicago Sun-Times, October 2, 2006
2. Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2006

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