Jonathan Potts – American Revolutionary Physician

Military physicians, just like all soldiers and military officers, should read military history. We will be better if we do.

By Mark D. Harris

Napoleon suggested “Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederic. … This is the only way to become a great general and master the secrets of the art of war. …” As true as this maxim is for line officers, it is also true for leaders in the Army medical department. By studying the struggles, victories and defeats of our forebears we can better surmount the obstacles we face today.

Dr. Jonathan Potts is a medical officer worth studying. He was born in Popodickon, Pennsylvania in 1747 and, with Dr. Benjamin Rush, attended the famous medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland. He returned to the colonies on learning of the illness of his fiancé, Miss Grace Richardson. Potts married her in May 1767 and completed his Doctor of Medicine at the College of Philadelphia, the first institution to grant medical degrees in America, in 1771. He began a private practice in Reading, PA, but responded to the call of independence, seeking assignment with the Continental Hospital Department, comprised of Northern, Middle and Eastern Departments.

Dr. John Morgan became Director General (DG) of the Continental Hospital Department on 17 Oct 1775, and was immediately embroiled in the controversy on the relationship between the hospital department and the regimental medical system and on the DG’s authority over the Northern Department Hospital Director, Dr. Samuel Stringer. Potts, hired in June 1776 as “physician and surgeon” for the Northern Department, steered clear of the imbroglio. He was busy at Fort George, at the south end of Lake George, supporting the army retreating from Canada. Morgan and Stringer were relieved in January 1777.

Traveling with the new commander, BG Horatio Gates, Potts brought not only himself but medicine and supplies for the hospital at Fort George. On arrival he found 1000 patients with smallpox and dysentery, a number that retreating forces swelled to 3000 by mid July. Patients were “without clothing, without bedding, or a shelter sufficient to screen them from the weather.” Medicine was in short supply. Nonetheless, Potts used variolation, a technique whereby scabs from infected smallpox patients was used to expose uninfected people to small amounts of the virus, to combat the epidemic. By 28 August Gates wrote Washington that “the smallpox is now perfectly removed from the army”.

As fall approached medicine and even food were scarce. Potts began transferring patients to the better supplied hospital in Albany and even discharged some to return home and recover. The later practice was halted, but by December 1776, the expected British attack on Ticonderoga having never come, the Fort George hospital was closed and its patients moved to Albany. Potts became acting Director of the Northern Department in February 1777, and by May the department was “well prepared to handle the casualties of other campaign.”

Washington’s defense of New York in the summer and fall of 1776 had resulted in disaster, and between 1/3 and ¼ of his remaining army was sick or injured as he retreated south through New Jersey. These were sent in advance of the main army and housed in “flying camps” until they could recover. By late November these patients were flooding Philadelphia. When Dr. Potts arrived in the city in December, taking leave from his work at Fort George, the city’s Council of Safety asked him to arrange for their care, and to send those from Maryland to get care at the new hospital in Baltimore.

The Northern Department under Potts had much to do in the summer of 1777, for the British were moving south from Montreal, taking Ticonderoga on 6 July and Fort George on 29 July. Patients were moved to Albany, and a new hospital was built near the concentration of American militia outside Bennington, VT. Supplies and equipment were in short supply, much having been lost to the British. Tension between the regimental medical system and the hospital system persisted. Nonetheless out of 6,023 men in the Northern Army on 20 July, only 459 were hospitalized. American victories at Bennington in August and Saratoga in October turned the tide of the war, and found hundreds of wounded and ill redcoats in American hands. The medical staff performed well, but ill-health forced Potts to return to Philadelphia in September.

After the fall of Philadelphia in September 1777 Potts assisted with the care of American wounded who were evacuated west across the Schuylkill River. By the time Washington began wintering at Valley Forge, Dr. Potts had become Deputy Director and Purveyor of the Middle Department. The cold was bitter, and food, medicine, clothing, and nearly everything necessary to support an army in the field, were nearly absent. The Commissary General, Ephraim Blaine, and Dr. Potts were both charged with feeding sick and injured soldiers. This caused conflict at first, but by April 1778 adequate amounts of staples were in camp. Medicines, medical supplies and other medical and surgical equipment was a problem throughout the winter and spring. Large orders of lime juice suggest that scurvy was a plague in the camp. Smallpox inoculation continued, but death rates were higher than expected due to the soldier’s emaciation.

In July 1778 the British abandoned Philadelphia and Potts arranged to reopen the hospital there. He continued serving his patients and the colonial cause until he resigned from the army in 1780. Potts died in Reading, PA in October 1781.

As a physician, an administrator, a trusted leader, and a tireless supporter of the cause of freedom, Dr. Jonathan Potts was an example for medics of all types in the Army today.

1. Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department 1775-1818, Center of Military History, US Army
2. Physicians, Surgeons and Mates with Washington at Valley Forge,, accessed 6 June 2013.
3. Jonathan Potts,, accessed 6 June 2013
4. Edward D. Neill, Biographical sketch of Doctor Jonathan Potts,, accessed 7 June 2013

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