Orthopedic surgeon Pottenger aided many with arthritis
Lawrence A. Pottenger, an orthopedic surgeon with a particular interest in arthritis, the orthopedic problems in the elderly and improving artificial joints, died Monday, Sept. 25 at the University Hospitals from complications of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was 62.
Pottenger, Associate Professor Emeritus in Surgery and Pathology, worked as a clinician and surgeon four and a half days a week, performing nearly 350 operations a year, mostly hip and knee replacements, for 25 years. He helped introduce hip-replacement techniques that avoid the use of cement, which is prone to loosening with use and was an early advocate of less-invasive operations.
He also spent time teaching medical students, doing research on the composition of cartilage and the changes that occur in the progression of osteoarthritis, as well as designing artificial joints. He and colleague Louis Draganich, Associate Professor in Surgery, designed and patented the Two Radius Area Contact knee to provide a more durable joint with normal range of motion that made it suitable for younger and more active patients.
The impetus for TRACĒ came from an off-hand comment. “Larry was meeting with the head of a company that made artificial knees and he complained about their products,” recalled Draganich. “So the guy said ‘If you think you can make a better one, go ahead.’ And we did.
Born May 21, 1944, in DeKalb, Ill., Pottenger earned all three of his degrees from the University—(S.B.,’66), (Ph.D. ’72) and (M.D.,’74).
In a book he began writing in his retirement about the role of “healers,” Pottenger explained that his desire to become a doctor came only after he began interacting with patients. “Nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced when I started seeing patients,” he wrote. “Their stories were fascinating. Their problems were very complicated, real and immediate compared to the abstractions of scientific proofs.”
After a five-year residency in general and orthopedic surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., Pottenger was recruited back to Chicago in 1979. But before he returned, he met and married Barbara Merlo, a nurse, in 1977. His wife worked as head nurse in the recovery room until they had their first child. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1984, served as Chairman of Orthopedics from 1984 to 1986, and then as Vice-chairman from 1986 to 1992.
Pottenger served on multiple oversight boards and committees for the Association of Orthopedic Chairman, the American Board of Orthopedic Surgeons, the Orthopedic Research Society and others. He also was a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Surgical Research and a regular peer reviewer for the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although most of his publications focused on cartilage biology, arthritis and joint replacement, in the mid-1980s Pottenger developed a lasting interest in medical ethics after he confronted his fears the first time he had to operate on a patient with AIDS. At the time, little was known about the risk of transmission during a surgery.
“As a doctor,” he decided, after weighing all the factors, “I had to do the operation.” If he had refused, “I would be the person who was too frightened and too selfish to help a person I cared about,” he wrote. “I would spend the rest of my life with a scar on my spirit.” He later published several influential papers analyzing his own decision process, the surgeon’s obligation to treat, and the attitudes and practices of orthopedic surgeons concerning patients with HIV and AIDS.
When Pottenger developed the first hints of cognitive impairment, he had to leave patient care. He stopped seeing patients early in 2003 and then went on disability. His health declined rapidly in the last year of his life.
Pottenger’s wife Barbara, his daughters Katherine and Lindsey, brothers Eugene and Gary, sister Chelon Stanzel, and son-in-law Eric Bartlett all survive him. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 1156 E. 59th St., followed by a reception in International House, 1414 E. 59th St.
In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the Alzheimer’s Association, 225 N. Michigan Ave., 17th floor, Chicago, Ill. 60611.