Potter, Claudia (1881–1970)

By: Elizabeth Silverthorne

Type: Biography

Published: May 1, 1995

Claudia Potter, pioneer physician in the field of anesthesiology, daughter of William T. C. and Laura E. (Smith) Potter, was born in Denton County on February 3, 1881. Her father was a farmer, and several of her siblings became teachers, but at an early age Claudia determined to become a doctor, and despite many difficulties, she never swerved from that goal. In the 1890s Denton High School was one of the Texas high schools granted an "affiliation" rating from the University of Texas. This meant that upon graduation Claudia Potter (valedictorian of her class) qualified to be admitted as a freshman at the Medical Branch of the University at Galveston. She was the only woman in her class of sixty-two, and in 1904 she was the sixth woman to be graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She did postgraduate work at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After serving an internship at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, she entered general practice with another woman doctor in San Antonio. In 1906 Dr. Arthur C. Scott asked her to come to Temple to work at the Temple Sanitarium, soon to become Scott and White Memorial Hospital. She became the fourth member of the medical staff, and for forty-one years she served as head of the Department of Anesthesiology of Scott and White.

Until the 1930s it was customary in Texas for general anesthetics such as ether, ethyl chloride, chloroform, and nitrous oxide to be administered by medical students, interns, or nurses under the supervision of the surgeon doing the operation. Dr. Potter, who was probably the first full-time physician anesthetist in Texas, did much to improve techniques of administering anesthetics. In 1908 she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to study the use of nitrous oxide gas anesthesia. While there she purchased a gas machine for administering nitrous oxide for use at Scott and White. She is credited with being the first physician to administer gas anesthesia in a Texas hospital. Up until that time ether or chloroform was administered as a liquid by drip procedures. When ethylene gas was introduced into use in the United States in 1923, Potter investigated its use and, finding it an improvement over other anesthetics, introduced its use at Scott and White.

During the early 1900s transportation was difficult, and many people thought of hospitals only as places to go to die. Consequently, surgery was frequently performed in homes, where Potter had to be on constant guard against the sparks from open fires and stoves that might ignite the highly inflammable anesthetics she was using. She and the surgeons traveled in blistering heat and freezing cold to operate on patients in outlying areas. They went in horse-drawn vehicles, unreliable early automobiles, train cabooses, and once in a terrifying ride in a tiny airplane. The team performed operations on kitchen and dining-room tables and on one occasion, when the patient's house was deemed too dirty to use, in a cotton field on boards set across sawhorses.

In November 1925 Dr. Potter presented a paper titled "Insulin-Glucose in the Prevention of Postanesthetic Vomiting" at the fourth annual meeting of the Southern Association of Anesthetists with the Southern Medical Association in Dallas. In it she described favorable results of her trial use of insulin-glucose to counteract vomiting due to anesthetics used during surgery. The paper was subsequently published in the April 1926 Journal of Anesthesia and Analgesia. Potter was a charter member of the Texas Society of Medical Anesthetists and served as its president in 1947–48. In 1952 she was elected to honorary membership in the Texas Medical Association, and in 1961 she was elected an honorary member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. She also held memberships in the American Medical Association and the Southern Medical Association and was secretary of the Bell County Medical Society. She was an honorary member of Delta Kappa Gamma and a member of the American Association of University Women and the First Christian Church in Temple.

Claudia Potter never married, but devoted her life to medicine. In 1954 she and seven of her fellow physicians of the class of 1904 were honored by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston at the June commencement. During this ceremony she became the first woman ever to receive the Golden "T" Award for "50 years of service to medicine." After retiring from Scott and White in 1947, she spent the last years of her life traveling extensively, working actively in the First Christian Church, and enjoying her garden, her family, and her friends. After a series of strokes she died at Scott and White Hospital on February 2, 1970.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website
Charles R. Allen, Historical Notes on the Origin and Development of the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists (Austin: Texas Society of Anesthesiologists, 1989). Dayton Kelley, With Scalpel and Scope: A History of Scott and White (Waco: Texian Press, 1970). Texas Medicine, May 1970.
  • Health and Medicine
  • Physicians and Surgeons
  • Anesthesiologists
  • Women

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Elizabeth Silverthorne, “Potter, Claudia,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/potter-claudia.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: