Lives of the fellows

Robert Bews Kerr

b.20 August 1908 d.19 December 1997
OBE(1945) BA Toronto(1930) MD(1933) MA(1936) MRCP(1938) FRCPC(1945) FACP(1951) FRCP(1955)

Robert Bews Kerr was the founding head of the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the oldest child of George and Helen Kerr. Although his father, then an executive with Westinghouse Canada, wanted him to become a lawyer, early childhood experiences unveiled the intrigue and challenge of a career in medicine. At the age of eleven he witnessed several enlightening experiences; the birth of his sister, born in the front sitting-room of his home; the use of direct transfusions into the vein of his younger brother, Jimmy, after he was diagnosed as having purpura haemorrhagica; and the ‘double pneumonia’ of his mother, who, without the availability of antibiotic treatment, remained critically ill and close to death for ten days. Thereafter, although there was significant opposition from his family, Robert Kerr elected to pursue a course in the field of medicine.

In 1926 he enrolled in an honours science course at the University of Toronto and subsequently trained in medicine, with the awarding of his MD in 1933. From 1935 to 1937 he was involved in research under the supervision of Charles Best [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.35] in the area of diabetes. He authored several publications on the differentiation of juvenile and adult onset diabetes and the use of various forms of insulin, including the initial use of protamine zinc insulin.

From 1937 to 1939 he pursued his education and research training in London under the supervision of Sir Harold Himsworth [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.238] and contributed to the early literature on the influence of insulin and diet on the outcome of diabetes.

In 1940 he enlisted in the Canadian Army and served in the Second World War, posted in England, Belgium, and Germany. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and was in charge of a major medical posting shortly after the European invasion. In 1945 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire after demonstrating outstanding leadership and for the innovative care of patients during a serious outbreak of diphtheria in Turnhout, Belgium. Kerr’s leadership led to the successful cure of all but one case. At the end of the war he was asked to look after concentration camp victims, all severely emaciated. He recalled, during his rounds, being summoned with a whisper from one patient, a physician who had been on the faculty of a French university and had been captured for working for the French resistance. Kerr prescribed penicillin for him because he had purulent empyema of his chest. The French physician wanted to know what this new drug was and how it was produced. Kerr carefully explained that this was made from "green stuff on bread".

Following the war he returned to the University of Toronto and became head of the department of therapeutics. In 1950 he was appointed as the founding head of the department of medicine at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He dedicated the next twenty five years to the establishment of an outstanding medical teaching programme at the university. He had an unswerving dedication to the pursuit of excellence in clinical care and in the education of clinicians and scientists. He was widely recognized as an outstanding clinical teacher and amongst his prodigies were three future faculty deans of medicine in Canada.

In 1959 Kerr was awarded the Sir Arthur Sims travelling professorship in medicine and he and his wife spent four months visiting medical schools, hospitals, and communities in what was at that time British Africa.

Over and above these duties, Kerr provided leadership in almost all capacities in medicine in Canada. He served as a councillor of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada from 1961 to 1970 and had the honour of serving as its president from 1966 to 1968. In this capacity he inaugurated measures to assure quality control of teaching programmes in Canada, expanded the number of specialties in the medical programmes, and began to publish the ‘annals’ of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada.

He served as a member of the Medical Council of Canada from 1951 to 1972, as the chairman of the qualification committee from 1965 to 1967, and as president of the Council in 1968. He aided the Council in the development of a new examination system to assess internal and external applications for Canadian qualifications and he was instrumental in securing and maintaining the outstanding teaching records at all of the medical schools in Canada.

Between 1951 and 1974 Kerr was on the medical advisory committee of the British Columbia Tuberculosis Association and sat on the research grants committee of the Canadian Tuberculosis and Respiratory Disease Association.

Following his retirement he turned his efforts to writing the history of his profession, chronicling the illustrious career of Duncan Graham [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VI, p.204], his mentor as the head of the department of medicine at the University of Toronto, and the history of the Medical Council of Canada.

Kerr was a dedicated member of the United Church of Canada, providing a leadership role for the whole congregation and delivering several insightful and inspirational sermons.

Alert until immediately prior to his death, Kerr had the opportunity of attending several milestone events in the last three months of his life. Foremost was his sixtieth wedding anniversary with his author wife Lois, whom he married in 1937. Second was his attendance at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada’s annual meeting in Vancouver, a meeting he had attended with only two absences during the preceding forty five years. Finally he was able to attend the celebration of the appointment of his son, Charles, to the chair in cardiology at the University of British Columbia.

Charles R Kerr

(Volume X, page 277)

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