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Potter, A. A. (Andrey Abraham), 1882-1979



  • Existence: August 5, 1882 - November 5, 1979

Biographical Information

Andrey Abraham Potter, a nationally recognized figure in engineering and scientific education, was born in Vilnius, Lithuania (then known as Vilna, Russia), on August 5, 1882, to parents Gregor and Rivza Potter.  In 1897, fifteen-year-old Potter left home and travelled to Boston, Massachusetts. There, he lived with an uncle while he studied and waited until he reached the age of 17 and could apply for entrance to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Potter passed his entrance exams, was admitted, and earned his Bachelor of Science degree from MIT in 1903.

Following graduation, Potter's early career was devoted to the development of steam turbines for the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. Although he was considered one of the company's most promising young turbine engineers, he left GE in 1905 to accept a position as Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Kansas State Agricultural College. Potter was responsible for establishing at Kansas State one of the first curricula in agricultural engineering.

In 1906, he became a U.S. citizen. Potter married Eva Burtner that same year, and the couple had two children, Helen and James. In 1913, Potter was named Dean of Engineering and Director of the Engineering Experiment Station at Kansas State. In 1916, he testified in Washington on behalf of the Newlands Bill, which would have provided $15,000 annually to each land-grant institution for the establishment and support of an engineering or a mechanic arts experiment station.  Although the Newlands Bill did not pass, the hearings focused attention on the value of engineering research and gave a stimulus to the founding of engineering experiment stations throughout the country.  Purdue's own station was founded following Potter's testimony.

In 1920, Potter joined Purdue University as its third Dean of Engineering. Immediately following his appointment, Potter began work on building a student personnel service similar to the one he started in 1905 at Kansas State. The Purdue Placement Service formally opened February 1, 1922. It was the first student personnel service of its kind, and was widely copied by other universities. Potter began an exhaustive study of the state of the engineering profession and of engineering education. In 1929, the Wickenden Report was published, offering crucial insight into the needs and strengths of the engineering profession.

While at Purdue, Potter increased the number of professional engineering courses and added four new schools to those existing at the time of his arrival. He was responsible for three new buildings and introduced the idea of Purdue having its own airport. From 1945 to 1946, Potter served as Director of the Purdue Research Foundation and Purdue's Acting President, in addition to continuing in his position as Dean of Engineering. He was offered the Purdue presidency, but declined, stating that he preferred teaching to administration. Potter was often referred to as "The Dean of Deans" because of the large role he played in the direction of engineering education in the United States during the twentieth century. He was dedicated to both students and engineering, and was widely known as a consultant to schools of engineering, industry, and government. In 1953, Potter was named Dean Emeritus of Engineering at Purdue. During his tenure, Potter built Purdue into the largest and one of the most respected engineering colleges in the country.

Potter was President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1932-1933), the American Society for Engineering Education (1924-1925), the Kansas and Indiana Engineering Societies, and the American Engineering Council (1936-1938). He was appointed to advisory boards and special commissions of the United States Government, and was acquainted with, and served on panels for, most of the United States Presidents during his tenure at Purdue. Potter served as a consultant for the departments of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, National Office of Education, and was one of the early members of the Advisory Board of the National Science Foundation. During the two world wars, he actively formulated programs for training men in war industries, personally directing the training himself and utilizing engineering colleges as sources for industrial preparation. He strove to protect the rights of inventors' ideas, and served as executive secretary of the National Patent Planning Commission from 1942 to 1945. From 1950 to 1960, Potter served as President of Bituminous Coal Research.

Potter was awarded 10 honorary doctoral degrees during his career. In 1940, he was presented the prestigious ASEE Lamme Award for his contributions to engineering education. Three years later, the Western Society of Engineers presented him with the Washington Award for distinguished leadership in engineering education, research, and patriotic service in mobilizing technical knowledge for victory in war and peace. He was also presented the McCormick Medal for his contributions to agricultural engineering. Additional honors include the 75th Anniversary Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the 1950 Americanism Award, the Cyrus Hall McCormick Medal in 1953, and the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award. He was a member of Sigma Tau, Tau Beta Pi and Sigma Xi.

Potter was an expert in power generation and the behavior of steam under high pressure, and his work in power plant engineering, thermodynamics and fuels firmly established his reputation among American engineers. His pioneer efforts in personnel work for engineering students and humanizing engineering education have also been recognized. Potter wrote several books on engineering and more than 300 scientific papers and articles.  His first book, Farm Motors, was published in 1913. His text, Elements of Steam and Gas Power Engineering, was published four months prior to his move to Purdue. The same year, he co-authored Engineering Thermodynamics.

Even after his formal retirement from Purdue in 1953, he continued to make himself available for consultation. He remained president of the Bituminous Coal Research, an industrial organization, until 1960.  The Potter Engineering Center at Purdue was named in his honor, and was dedicated in 1977.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Purdue University Office of Publications Oral History Program collection

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSO 2
Scope and Contents The Purdue Office of Publications Oral History Program collection documents Purdue University history through oral history interviews with Purdue University professors and administrators. Types of materials include: printed material, cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, compact discs, and digital materials. Interview topics include Purdue history and changes in administration and academic departments.
Dates: 1969 - 1989; Majority of material found within 1970 - 1972