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COLLECTION — Multiple Containers Identifier: H MS c542

David Dickinson Potter papers


The David Dickinson Potter papers, 1859-2014 (inclusive), 1958-2014 (bulk) consist of papers, as well as some electronic media, film, slides, photographs, and photographic negatives, produced as a result of Potter’s professional activities as a neurobiologist and teacher in the Harvard Medical School Department of Neurobiology, and from his work as a mentor and advocate for underrepresented students at Harvard Medical School. The collection also includes records from Potter’s work establishing educational programs for Native American students (now the Ed Furshpan and David Potter Native American High School Program) and records pertaining to his teaching and professional service at other organizations.


  • 1859-2014 (inclusive)
  • Majority of material found within 1958-2014


Language of Materials

Papers are in English, with several items (usually reprints or letters) in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Russian.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice.

Access to Harvard University records (and organizational records from other organizations) is restricted for 50 years from the date of creation. This restriction is noted where it appears in Series I, IV, VI, and VII. These restrictions are noted where they appear in Series I, II, III, IV, V, VIII, and IX. Access to personal, student, and patient information is restricted for 80 years from the date of creation. These restrictions appear in Series II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, and IX. Researchers may apply for access to restricted records. Consult Public Services for further information.

Access to digital files in this collection (as found in Series III, V, VII, VIII, and IX) is also subject to the above restrictions. Technical access to digital files is premised on the availability of a computer station, requisite software, and/or the ability of Public Services staff to review and/or print out records of interest in advance of an on-site visit.

Audio and audio-visual recordings (film and VHS tape) are restricted to access until such time as they can be converted to digital media. Recordings may also be subject to the above restrictions; once converted, recordings will be restricted based on the recording's title, or as per the restrictions for the folder from which the recording was removed.

Conditions Governing Use

The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.


81.5 cubic feet (81 records center cartons, 1 half legal size document boxes, 1 small slide box)
4.74 Gigabytes (9,467 digital files, 733 digital folders)

The David Dickinson Potter papers, 1859-2014 (inclusive), 1958-2014 (bulk) consist of papers, as well as some electronic media, film, slides, photographs, and photographic negatives, produced as a result of Potter’s professional activities as a neurobiologist and teacher in the Harvard Medical School Department of Neurobiology, and from his work as a mentor and advocate for students of color at Harvard Medical School. The collection also includes records from Potter’s work establishing educational programs for Native American students (now the Ed Furshpan and David Potter Native American High School Program) and records pertaining to his teaching and professional service at other organizations.

The largest group of records consists of Potter’s collected publications (Series IX), which are primarily files of reprints regarding neurobiology (brain anatomy and function), medicine and health topics, mental health, diseases (especially diseases disproportionately affecting Native American communities, such as alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome), people of color in the United States, and other topics. Research records (Series I) consist of research notes, laboratory notebooks, drafts of scientific papers, negatives, film, and photographs and images pertaining to synaptic activity and neurotransmitters, including GABA. Teaching records from Harvard Medical School (Series II) include lectures, student work, case studies, glass slides, grade sheets, course administration records, and reprints, particularly from the courses Human Nervous System and Behavior (HNSB) and Neurobiology. Person files (Series III) contain correspondence (including printed emails), applications, letters of recommendation, holiday and greeting cards, transcripts, and CVs, especially for medical students of color and Native American students who Potter mentored and for Potter’s scientific colleagues at Harvard and other institutions, as well as files with records about the Department of Neurobiology and Potter’s personal records. Committee records (Series IV) are from Harvard and other organizations, as well as underrepresented-student recruiting records from Potter’s trips to historically-Black colleges and universities to recruit underrepresented students to Harvard Medical School, primarily from the late 1960s and early and mid-1970s, especially correspondence, interview notes, and applications. Records from the Native American High School Summer Program (and other iterations and related Harvard programs for Native Americans, such as Harvard University Native American Program and the Nation Building course, Series V), include photographs, educational materials, student records (including a VHS tape of a student play), and program administration records. The collection also includes teaching and corporation records from the Marine Biological Laboratory (Series VI); teaching and advisory committee records from Morehouse College and Morehouse School of Medicine, respectively (Series VII); and records from Potter’s involvement in the Society for Neuroscience as well as his lectures, correspondence, and travel records from invited talks (Series VIII). Records date from 1901-2014, though some early dates are original publication dates on reprinted or photocopied journal articles used later. The bulk of the collection dates from the 1950s-2014. In addition to the specific formats mentioned above, the collection includes several CDs, DVDs, 3.5 inch floppy disks, 5.25 inch floppy disks, and a VHS tape.

Papers are primarily in English, with several items, especially letters and collected publications, in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian, and one item in English and Japanese.

Biographical Note

David Dickinson Potter (1930-2019), B.A., 1952, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania and Ph.D., 1956, Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. A founding faculty member in the Harvard Medical School Department of Neurobiology, Potter researched the nervous system, especially neurotransmitters. He led efforts to recruit and admit more Black students and other students of color to Harvard Medical School, and he started a summer program at Harvard Medical School for Native American high school students, now called the Ed Furshpan and David Potter Native American High School Program.

David Dickinson Potter was born in Chicago, Illinois on 22 December 1930 to Truman (1897-1962) and Jean Potter (1896-1992). Potter was identified as white in the 1940 U.S. Census. Potter earned a B.A. in zoology from Swarthmore College in 1952, and a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard College in 1956. He then spent two years in the Department of Biophysics at University College London, England, the first year as a fellow for the National Science Foundation and the second year as a fellow for the Public Health Service. While at University College London, Potter worked in Bernard Katz’s (1911-2003) lab with fellow postdoctoral student, Edwin Furshpan (1928-2019). Potter went on to work as a Research Fellow in ophthalmic physiology with Stephen Kuffler (1913-1980) at the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland in 1958, along with Furshpan. In 1959, Kuffler brought Potter, Furshpan, David Hubel (1926-2013), and Torsten Wiesel (born 1924) with him to Harvard Medical School, initially to the Department of Pharmacology. These five were joined by biochemist Edward Kravitz (born 1932) in 1960. Potter served as Instructor in Neurophysiology and Neuropharmacology (1959-1963), and then as Assistant Professor of Neurobiology (1963-1966). In 1966, Kuffler founded the Department of Neurobiology. This interdisciplinary department—the first neurobiology department in the world, was notable for being organized around the study of an organ (the brain) rather than around a technique. In the Department of Neurobiology, Potter was Associate Professor of Neurobiology (1966-1969), Professor of Neurobiology (1969-1983), Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology (1983-2001), and Robert Winthrop Research Professor of Neurobiology (2001-2005). In 2005, Potter retired as Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology, Emeritus. As Department Chair from 1982 to 1990, Potter cultivated the department’s traditions of interdisciplinary collaboration; rigorous research; and regular evening meetings, lunchtime seminars, and beer hours.

Potter’s research focused on neurotransmitters. He provided evidence for electrical signaling in the nervous system, identified gamma-animobutyric acid (GABA) as a neurotransmitter in the lobster nervous system, and discovered neurons’ ability to release multiple neurotransmitters and to switch neurotransmitter release under certain conditions. He also studied glial cells, the sympathetic nervous system, and the effect of nicotine on nerve cells. For decades, much of Potter’s research and publishing activties were in collaboration with Furshpan. The two also designed and helped teach a course in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Potter also taught courses at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts (1975-1985) and at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in Atlanta, Georgia (circa 2001-2010). He was a member of the corporation at the Marine Biological Laboratory and a member of several advisory committees at Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia.

In addition to his research and teaching, Potter was part of a group of faculty that formed after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) to push the administration of Harvard Medical School to admit more students of color. Potter chaired the committee to enforce the faculty resolution to admit more Black students, and he traveled to many historically-Black colleges and universities to encourage students of color to apply to Harvard Medical School. Potter furthered related efforts for underrepresented groups in science through participation in professional organizations, such as the Society for Neuroscience and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2000, he was part of a group of Harvard physicians to visit the Hopi Reservation (homeland) in Arizona. Hopi educators pushed Potter to offer a summer program for Hopi students at Harvard, and through collaboration with tribal leaders, he established the summer programs which became the Ed Furshpan and David Potter Native American High School Program. The program gives students from Hopi and Fort Peck tribes (and previously other Native tribes) the opportunity to study science and health topics related to Native health concerns for three-week sessions at Harvard, with the goal of increasing the number of Native Americans in higher education and medicine. For his work supporting women and minorities in science, Potter was awarded the Dean’s Community Service Award from the Medical School/School of Dental Medicine Office of Community Outreach Programs in 2000. He also received the Education Award from the Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs with Furshpan and Ed Kravitz in 2001, and the YWCA’s Racial Justice Award with Furshpan in 2006.

Potter married Mary "Molly" Crawford (born 1930), B.A., 1952, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and Ph.D., 1960., Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts. They had four children, Camilla (born 1958), Mark (born 1960), Sarah, and Robert. They resided in Cambridge and Woods Hole. Potter died in his sleep on 11 February 2019. Potter’s grandfather was Robert Latou Dickinson (1861-1950), the obstetrician-gynecologist, sex researcher, and artist.

Collection Arrangement

  1. I. Neurobiology research records and writings, 1892-1986, undated
  2. I.A. Neurobiology research records, 1892-1986
  3. I.B. Neurobiology writings, 1958-1986, undated
  4. I.C. Grant records, 1971-1985
  5. II. Harvard Medical School teaching records, 1929-2014
  6. II.A. Neurobiology and other early teaching records, 1929-2003
  7. II.B. Human Nervous System and Behavior teaching records, 1976-2014
  8. II.C. Summer course teaching records, 1961-1982
  9. III. Person files, 1914-2014
  10. III.A. Colleagues, 1951-2014
  11. III.B. Valuable reprints, 1914-2014
  12. IV. Harvard committee records and recruitment records, 1963-2008
  13. IV.A. Harvard committee records, 1963-2008
  14. IV.B. Harvard Medical School recruitment and admissions records, 1967-1977
  15. IV.C. Other committee records and sources related to underrepresented students, 1968-2008
  16. V. Native American High School Summer Program records and related records, 1966-2014
  17. VI. Marine Biological Laboratory records, 1971-1987
  18. VI.A. Teaching records, 1971-1976
  19. VI.B. Corporation records, 1982-1987
  20. VII. Morehouse teaching and committee records, 1968-2014
  21. VII.A. Morehouse course teaching records, 1968-2014
  22. VII.B. Morehouse committee records, 1997-2009
  23. VIII. Other professional activities records, 1957-2011
  24. VIII.A. Lecture and visit records, 1957-1990
  25. VIII.B. Other professional organizations records, 1986-2011
  26. IX. Collected publications, 1859-2014
  27. IX.A. Collected publications about muscles, nerves, reproductive and urinary systems, 1859-1996
  28. IX.B. Collected publications about motor neurons, movement, development, embryos, and immunology, 1938-1987
  29. IX.C. Collected publications about muscle and neuromuscular junctions, 1931-1988
  30. IX.D. Abused drugs, 1968-2014
  31. IX.E. Frontal cortex especially prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, 1968-2014
  32. IX.F. Ventral tegmental area and Nigra, 1954-2014
  33. IX.G. Amygdala, Hypothalamus, periaqueductal gray, 1954-2014
  34. IX.H. Control of Eating, Diabetes, 1922-2014
  35. IX.I. Diabetes 2, Alcohol/Alcoholism 1, 1951-2014
  36. IX.J. Alcohol 2, FAS, 1900-2012
  37. IX.K. 5-hydroxytryptamine, 1948-2013
  38. IX.L. Collected publications about Parkinson's disease, 1985-2006
  39. IX.M. Striatum, 1965-2014
  40. IX.N. Dopamine Neurons Properties, 1959-2014
  41. IX.O. Collected publications about affirmative action, 1979-2013
  42. IX.P. Intelligence quotient (I.Q.), 1970-2013
  43. IX.Q. Collected publications about ion channels, receptors, transmitters, synapses, 1931-2014
  44. IX.R. Collected publications about hormones, peptides, and opioid receptors, 1952-2013
  45. IX.S. Collected publications about peptides, purines, and gap junctions, 1900-2014
  46. IX.T. Collected publications about aggression, pain, and spindles, 1925-2011
  47. IX.U. Collected publications about the genome, gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), posterior paralaminar nuclei of the thalamus/laterodorsal tegmental nucleus (PPNT/LDT), memory, hippocampus, and thalamus, 1965-2014
  48. IX.V. Collected publications about catecholamine neurons and glial cells, 1960-2014
  49. IX.W. Early electrical stimulation variety of behavioral components, 1952-2014
  50. IX.X. Reviews of Reward System, Actions of Abused Drugs, 1967-2014
  51. IX.Y. Dopamine Actions, Effects of Drugs, 1980-2014
  52. IX.Z. Ventral Striatum Septum, 1969-2014
  53. IX.aa. Collected publications about the brain and mental health, 1949-2014
  54. IX.ab. Collected publications about various diseases, human feelings, and brain functions, 1982-2014
  55. Collected publications about science and society and general popular science issues, 1969-2014

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The David Dickinson Potter papers were gifted to the Center for the History of Medicine by David Dickinson Potter. The collection was transferred in the following accessions:

  1. Accession number 2018-102. David Dickinson Potter. 2017 October 17
  2. Accession number 2018-108. David Dickinson Potter. 2017 December 08
  3. Accession number 2019-092. David Dickinson Potter. 2018 December 11
  4. Accession number 2019-188. David Dickinson Potter. 2019 May 15
  5. Accession number 2020-088. David Dickinson Potter. 2019 October 29
  6. Accession number 2020-099. David Dickinson Potter. 2019 November 15

Related Collections in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine

Processing Information

Processed by Charlotte G. Lellman, 2021 April.

The archivist surveyed, rearranged, rehoused, and described the collection, and created this finding aid to improve access. File titles were transcribed from original folders. Where original folder titles were not present, titles devised by the archivist are shown in brackets on the physical folders. In some cases, title addenda are included in brackets. Potter’s original arrangement scheme was largely maintained, with some runs of files combined to create a larger series or subseries. In some cases, a run of records was removed from within a larger grouping to another series or to its own series, where it fit more logically. The Native American series and the Harvard series are partially devised from records removed from several different original boxes, for example. More detailed arrangement notes are provided at the series level. Series and subseries titles were devised by the archivist. In Series IX, only subseries titles beginning "Collected publications..." are devised by the archivist; the others reflect groupings titled by the creator.

Some fasteners and bindings were removed. Photographs were interleaved with acid-free paper or placed in acid-free sleeves. Negatives were placed in acid-free sleeves; notes on original negative sleeves were photocopied or transcribed and original sleeves were discarded. Some papers were removed from plastic folders or other bindings. Slides were removed to appropriately-sized boxes. Some duplicate items, office supplies, extraneous objects, and a personal check were removed from the collection for discard or return to the donor's family. An unidentified transparent object made out of a plastic-like material was discarded during processing.

Recognizing that historical terms do not always completely or directly map to contemporary terms, that historical terms can be offensive or inaccurately characterize a person or group, that the presence of both historical and contemporary terms may be useful for researcher discovery, and that preferred terminology varies by tribe and by individual, the archivist has tried to use specific tribal names whenever possible when referring to Native Americans. When making a general reference or referring to members of multiple tribes, the archivist has used the term "Native American," however some original folder titles and records use the term "Indian," and the corresponding Library of Congress term, included for access, is "Indians of North America." Official place names, such as "Hopi Reservation" have been used to describe federal land owned by Native American tribes, with the term "homeland" included parenthetically, as some people prefer it and consider it more accurate. The equivalent Library of Congress subject heading, "Indian reservations," has also been included for increased access. The term "Black" has been used as a racial descriptor, with the closest equivalent Library of Congress term, "African American," also included in subject headings.

All electronic media (as found in Series II, III, V, VII, VIII, and IX) were imaged using Access Data’s FTK and a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device. Using FTK, records were screened for explicit and encrypted files, and use copies were extracted. Files that could be opened were sampled for content, however researchers should be aware that not every file in the collection could be opened and assessed. Files for which specific software was needed, but not available to staff at the time of processing, were not reviewed. Electronic media that could not be imaged were retained and are noted in a local inventory. Researchers should be aware that most dates of digital files were determined based on the file creation or modification dates (whichever is earlier); however, these dates may not always accurately reflect the actual creation or modification dates.

Potter, David Dickinson. Papers, 1859-2014 (inclusive), 1958-2014 (bulk): A Finding Aid.
Charlotte Lellman
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

The Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine is one of the world's leading resources for the study of the history of health and medicine. Our mission is to enable the history of medicine and public health to inform healthcare, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded.

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