Molly Potter

I was born in Beirut, Lebanon (although it was Syria at the time) in 1930. My father was a university administrator at the American University of Beirut (AUB). My mother had been a nurse, but, while abroad, she was a housewife. I was the fourth generation of an American missionary family that went to Syria in the 1800s. My favorite memories while growing up on the beautiful AUB campus include climbing a huge oak tree with my friends, and going up to the mountains to spend the summers in a pine grove where my family had a house. I lived in the Middle East until I was ten years old. I left in 1941, during WWII.

I moved to Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada with my mother and two siblings. As a result of war time, we traveled in stages to Canada. First, we went to Jerusalem, Cairo, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Then, we traveled to Sydney, Australia. I lived in Jerusalem for two months as a refugee, and went to a British school there. The British style of school was a strange experience for me; they were already studying algebra and Latin in the 5th grade. In Cairo, while waiting to board the boat, there was an air raid -- it was the closest I had ever been to war and the only air raid I have ever witnessed. From Australia, we then boarded a boat that took us to New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, and Hawaii on our way to Los Angeles, CA. After reaching the United States, we then took a train across the country to get to Canada, where I spent the next four years living with my mother's side of the family. I distinctly remember the very cold walks to school each winter in New Brunswick. While my mother and siblings and I made our way to Canada, my father had stayed in the Near East in Cairo to work for the OSS which is now the CIA. He never told us much of what he did, but it was mostly office work; he evaluated bits of intelligence information and evidence because of his fluency in Arabic and French.

I was happy to return to Beirut for 10th grade. Afterwards, I came to the United States for two years of high school at Northfield Mount Herman School, a boarding school in western Massachusetts. At the time, it was just Northfield, an all-girls school; Mount Herman was the boys' equivalent. While at boarding school, I played Buttercup in Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore.

After graduating from high school, I attended Swarthmore College where I earned a B.A. in psychology. I met my husband, David Potter, in the summer of 1950. We were both working for a Quaker program in a mental hospital that summer. Dave's major was biology. At the end of the summer, Dave's father drove us to Woods Hole -- just to spend a day or two on Cape Cod. That was how I was first introduced to the town of Woods Hole. Dave had summered here as a child and had lived on a house on Buzzards Bay Avenue which they sold later; at the time, we stayed at a boarding house near the MBL. My first impression was that it was a beautiful place. I could see why my fiance had loved it as a child. My first evening in Woods Hole, Dave and I walked down to the town landing and sat on some big rocks and looked out upon Buzzards Bay -- having left Dave's father back at the house! Two years later, after we graduated from college and got married, we drove to Woods Hole for a week's honeymoon.

Soon after, Dave got his PhD at Harvard College while I was still working on mine. We lived in Cambridge right up to the present except for a three year period: the first two years, we went to London, England where we both did research work. Then, we spent one year in Baltimore where Dave worked with Steve Kuffler. He had met Kuffler at the MBL; Dave had taken Kuffler's neurophysiology course and thought it was fascinating. He asked if he could come work in Kuffler's lab that next summer -- he was still a graduate student in the biological labs at Harvard College at that time. When we moved to Baltimore, Dave started working with Kuffler on a regular basis -- Kuffler's whole group then moved to Harvard Medical School from Johns Hopkins University. The research involved neurotransmitters and, in particular, identifying an inhibitory transmitter in lobsters.

I completed my PhD in 1960, having already had one child, Camilla, while in London in 1958, and a second child, Mark, in 1960, as I completed my thesis. From 1961 to 1967, I worked at Harvard as a part time postdoc. Then, I took my first job at MIT as a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where I taught environmental psychology. I soon transferred to the Psychology Department (which later became the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences) as an associate professor. I later became a tenured professor. Much of my work was on how we humans perceive pictures or scenes, and how we read, especially when the information is coming in visually at a rapid rate. I'm currently working part time at MIT, but I will be retiring in July 2015.

Starting in 1958, Dave came to Woods Hole most summers to do research or teach neurobiology courses. We arranged to bring our family down for many of those summers. Around 1978, Dave and I bought the house we now live in on Buzzards Bay Avenue, next to the house Dave summered in as a child. Prior to that, the house had been owned by the Kanwishers, and then by Dave's sister, Fran Potter. By coincidence, Nancy Kanwisher became a graduate student of mine at MIT and has become a distinguished professor in my department. The two youngest of my four children, Sarah and Robert, were born in Boston after Dave had twice rushed me to the hospital from Woods Hole to deliver them! Thus, my family has a very strong connection to Woods Hole for all these years. One of my children and three of my grandchildren have worked at places in Woods Hole including the MBL, Woods Hole Museum, and WHOI. Six of my grandchildren have attended the Children's School of Science.

Dave is the main gardener at our house here, but both of us love working in our Woods Hole garden. I especially enjoy swimming in the late afternoons. I love Woods Hole for its interest in science and public issues as well as its community spirit. We have depended heavily on the Woods Hole Library for books-on-tape as we drive back and forth from Woods Hole to Cambridge. Our children and grandchildren have enjoyed the Saturday night dances at the community hall and the Fourth of July parade, among many other features of the Woods Hole community. I continue to enjoy Woods Hole and I hope my family will do so for the rest of their lives as well.

Described by Molly Potter
Written and Edited by Emily Fang
August 2014