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Potter Historical Collection

In conjunction with the first Dean John B. Davidge, Nathaniel Potter was the chief architect of the University of Maryland's School of Medicine. Originally chartered as the College of Medicine of Maryland, the school and its founders broke new ground in the state and regionally. As only the fifth medical school in the country, it was the first in the South. In his book, SOME ACCOUNT OF THE RISE AND PROGRESS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, Potter recorded the exploits of the founders in facing the challenges of establishing and nurturing the institution's early growth.

Potter's first wife was named Catherine Goldsborough. She died in or about 1804, leaving behind a young daughter, also named Catherine. Following the loss of his wife, Potter's young daughter lived under the care of the Goldsborough family, until her own untimely death in 1806. Potter's attachment to his in-laws remained a very warm one, and he continued regular correspondence with them. In 1808, his sister-in-law Sally Goldsborough married Dr. John Barnett, and he and Potter developed a most cordial relationship on both the familial and professional levels.

Through the generosity of two of Barnett's descendants, the Library holds several of these original pieces of correspondence in our Historical Collections Department. Barnett's great- great- granddaughter, Dolores DuPont, is the current custodian of the Barnett family papers, and she continues to organize and annotate them with great care and family devotion. Astute enough to understand the appeal that original Potter documents hold for the University of Maryland, Ms. DuPont began donating relevant Potter selections on a continuing basis beginning in December 2003, while in the process of completing her own personal documentation of them.

In a related gesture, Dr. Michael Barnett, also descended from Dr. John Barnett, and himself a 1985 graduate of the University of Maryland Medical School, donated a Potter letter to the Medical Alumni Association. The Association's Executive Director, Mr. Larry Pitrof, in turn brought the item to the Library for inclusion among its collections.

This site affords a brief glimpse at some of these selections.

The portrait of Nathaniel Potter shown on these pages currently hangs in the Library's Historical and Special Collections Department. The following 1961 press release authored by Beth Wilson, Office of University Relations, University of Maryland Professional Schools, Baltimore, Maryland, affords a history of the portrait and its connection to the Library:

BALTIMORE (MD.), OCTOBER 19, 1961 -- When the University of Maryland School of Medicine was still in its planning stage, three years before its beginning in 1807, a crayon portrait of one of its founders, Dr. Nathaniel Potter, was drawn by a French émigré artist, Charles Balthazar Julien-Finez St Mémin.

In 1913, the medical school's librarian, Mrs. Ruth Lee Briscoe, came across the unframed and unidentified portrait among an assortment of old library material. It was loosely rolled and the paper had begun to crumble.

The portrait was not signed, but its faded pink color amounted to a signature because it was the kind of paper St. Mémin used for his characteristic profile drawings, done with the aid of a mechanical device known as the physionotrace . Mrs. Briscoe had little trouble in authenticating it.

The portrait hung in the old medical school library until that building was torn down a few years ago to make way for the university's new Health Sciences Library, at which time it was placed in temporary storage along with other valuable library possessions.

This week Dr. Potter's portrait was brought from retirement again and hung in the office of the Health Sciences Librarian, Mrs. Ida Marian Robinson .The pink profile has been placed in the special kind of frame that St. Mémin devised and made himself for all his pictures. It is a rectangular gold frame, edged with lamb's tongue molding. The drawing itself is surrounded by an octagonal dark border painted on the covering glass; the triangular corners of the glass outside the octagon are embellished with gold stars.

Financial necessity drove St. Mémin, a French nobleman, to develop his latent artistic abilities when he fled to this country in 1793; revolutionists had seized his family estate in Santa Domingo as well as in France.

In New York City he made a "very exact drawing" of the city and harbor, as viewed from Mt. Pitt, the seat of John R. Livingston, Esq. It was so well received that he made a copper plate engraving of it in 1796, after learning the engraving process through diligent study of an encyclopedia in the New York Public Library.

Then he turned to the more lucrative field of portraits. He owned a few proofs of the physionotrace portraits that were then in vogue in France. Again resorting to the encyclopedia, and using as a model the physionotrace, or profile drawing machine invented by Gilles Louis Chrétien in 1787, he built his own physionotrace.

It was an unwieldy device consisting of a rectangular frame that slid up and down between two tall upright pieces of wood, to which were attached a movable magnifying eyepiece and a projecting arm holding a pencil.

With the eyepiece adjusted, the operator moved his head so that the intersection of the cross hairs followed around the sitter's profile; this movement in turn moved the pencil and traced a life-size profile.

St. Mémin finished his portraits freehand, drawing in features and costume in black crayon on red paper (which later faded to pink), and adding highlights with white crayon. He then reduced the large profile by the aid of the pantograph , or tracer (also called a stork's beak), on a copper plate within a circle about 2 inches in diameter. Details were put in with a graver and shading was done with a roulette of his own invention.

In April 1803 St. Mémin came to Baltimore, and on May 2 his "card" appeared in Yundt & Brown's FEDERAL GAZETTE, AND BALTIMORE DAILY ADVERTISER (as quoted by Fillmore Norfleet in SAINT MéMIN IN VIRGINIA):

Likenesses Engraved

The subscriber begs leave to inform the public, that he takes and engraves likenesses, in a style never introduced before in this country. He respectfully solicits of the lovers and protectors of the fine arts in this place, the same favors and patronage he has met with in the cities of New York and Philadelphia, where he has taken a great number of likenesses, among which are those of the most distinguished characters, copies of which may be seen at his lodgings No. 71, Water-Street opposite Cumberland Dugan's rope-store.
Terms -- the original likeness, plate and 12 impressions, shall be delivered for the price of 25 dollars for gentlemen; and 35 dollars for ladies. The likeness without engraving may be had for eight dollars. When the plate is delivered along with the likeness, one may have as many impressions as he pleases for the additional price of 1 dollar and 50 cents for each extra dozen.

April 29

St. Mémin was well liked in Baltimore and was often invited to attend meetings of the Philharmonic Society, where he occasionally played an alto part on one instrument or another.

Dr. Nathaniel Potter sat for his portrait by St. Mémin in 1804 ... St. Mémin made portraits of many notable American citizens, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington. The Washington portrait is said to have been the last one made.

There are a number of collections of his work in museums and in private hands. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. owns a collection of 800 proof engravings of portraits assembled and indexed by the artist himself.

Dr. Potter's portrait has been exhibited by a number of museums, including the Frick Museum in New York City, and by the Maryland Historical Society

BW:cac 10.19.61

Last edited on: Wednesday, February 5, 2020