Lives of the fellows

John Duke Olav Kerr

b.23 May 1911 d.27 June 1987
MB ChB Glasg(1934) FRFPS(1946) MRCP(1946) FRCPG(1962) FRCP(1963) FRCPE(1971)

Olav Kerr was born in Glasgow before the outbreak of the first world war. He imbibed high principles and a caring outlook in his home which no doubt influenced him towards the profession to which he was to devote his life. At school, the Glasgow Academy, he inclined to the classics side rather than the sciences, a pathway not unusual in the Scottish medical tradition in those days. Ill health prevented active participation in sports, something he always regretted. He developed a great love of the countryside and open-air activities. This was fulfilled by annual family holidays in Speyside and, in later years, a cottage at Kinlochard under the shadow of Ben Lomond. His other lifelong interest was in motor cars.

He studied medicine at Glasgow University and had a distinguished record there, gaining a number of prizes and an honours degree in 1934. After a year as house surgeon and house physician in the Western Infirmary, he became an assistant to the professor of physiology. Here he gained experience in research and an opportunity of developing his talents as a teacher. Two physicians had a considerable influence on him at this time, George Allan [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.7] in his own hospital and John Parkinson, later Sir John lMunk's Roll, Vol.VII, p.443] in the London Hospital, both of whom were founder members of the British Cardiac Society. Though physiology was a possible career, his heart was set towards clinical medicine and the exciting developments in the new specialty of cardiology. In the Scottish situation then, a consultant physician was a general physician, usually with a special interest; in Olav Kerr’s case this was to be cardiology.

The war years were a wider experience of medicine and of people. He became a lieutenant colonel in the RAMC in charge of a medical division of a general hospital. This was a time of preparation for what was to be this life’s work - a physician in the Western Infirmary, Glasgow.

Olav Kerr was an outstanding teacher. He excelled at the bedside and in the clinic. His enthusiasm and high standards of medical practice inspired even the most apathetic student. His use of anecdotes, not always flattering to himself, is part of the folklore of the hospital. He showed by precept and example that therapeutics were not solely the treatment of diseases but the care of the patient as a person and often the family as well. In those days of euphoria about new drugs this was a much needed corrective and not always popular. Perhaps this was the basis of his undoubted success in private consultant practice. He gave counsel and friendly understanding as well as good medical management. Over the years many students, colleagues and their families came for help, often in regard to matters quite outside the field of medicine. Olav was always available.

He took an active part in the affairs of the British Cardiac Society and was proud to chair its annual meeting held in Glasgow shortly before he retired. He was largely responsible for establishing the cardiac department in the hospital, and enjoyed training younger men in this field. Administration did not appeal to him, but in the early years of the National Health Service he gave wise leadership in the developing period of the new hospital service. He was recognized as a person of complete integrity.

Perhaps his most lasting work was the influence he had on the students and young doctors who were attached to his wards. He demanded upright character, courtesy and kindness, as well as a sound knowledge of medicine. He did not tolerate slackness in these qualities, as some found to their cost. Many in our profession today look back with gratitude and a sense of privilege in having been taught and influenced by one of the great teachers of the Glasgow School.

Olav Kerr was a family man. He married Jenny Gossip in 1937 and they had four sons, and later an adopted daughter. Two boys went into the Royal Navy, one into the Diplomatic Service, and the fourth became a historian and university lecturer. This close-knit family was a source of strength and joy to Olav, especially in the years of ill health following his retirement, and sustained him after the tragic death a few years ago of his third son, Robbie, while serving in the Royal Navy.

He and his wife accepted the Christian faith in childhood and their convictions grew with the passing years, not merely as a set of beliefs but as a way of life. If we seek to know from whence came the motivation for his life this was undoubtedly its source.

CD Anderson

[Brit.med.J., 1987,295,677]

(Volume VIII, page 256)

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