Kerr, John Graham

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Kerr, John Graham

(b. Arkley, Hertfordshire, England, 18 September 1869; d. Barley, Hertfordshire, England, 21 April 1957)


Graham Kerr, as he was known during most of his life, was the son of James Kerr, a former principal of Hoogly and Hindu College, Calcutta, and Sybella Graham. He attended the Collegiate School, Edinburgh, and then the Royal High School, before enrolling in Edinburgh University to study medicine. A new career opened to him when in 1889 he was selected to join the staff of an expedition of the Argentine nave for the survey of the Picomayo River from the Paraná; to the Bolivian frontier. an account of this famous expedition is contained in his book A Naturalist in the Gran Chaco (Cambridge, 1950).

Kerr returned to England in 1891 and entered Christ’s College, Cambridge. After graduation he led a second expedition to Paraguay (1896-1897) with the object of obtaining material for the study of the Dipnoi group of fishes, to which he had decided to dedicate his research career. He succeeded in collecting many specimens of the eel-shaped dipnoan or lungfish, Lepidosiren paradoxa,. On his return he was appointed demonstrator in animal morphology at Cambridge and elected a fellow of Christ’s College.

In 1902 Kerr became regius professor of natural history (changed to zoology in 1903) at the University of Glasgow, where he remained until 1935. Throughout his professorship he was especially interested in the teaching of medical students and his lectures were famous. His approach was largely morphological and embryological and is summarized in his textbook Zoology for Medical Students (London, 1921). Apart from his heavy teaching and administrative duties, he continued research work on various aspects of dipnoan anatomy and embryology, and he and his colleagues published a whole series of papers based on the material he had collected. In addition he was president of the Scottish Marine Biological Association and helped in the organization of the marine biological station at Millport, on Great Cumbrae Island in southwestern Scotland.

He was twice married, first to a cousin, Elizabeth Mary Kerr, daughter of Thomas Kerr, who died in 1934 and by whom he had two sons and one daughter; he later married a widow, Isobel Clapperton.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1909 and was a member of numerous other learned societies, serving as president of many of them. Later in life he took an increasing interest in politics and in 1935 was elected Conservative member of Parliament for the Scottish universities. He was knighted in 1939. Other public recognition included honorary LL.D. degrees at Edinburgh (1935) and St. andrews (1950); an honorary fellowship at Christ’ College, Cambridge (1935); associate membership of the Royal Academy of Belgium (1946); and the Linnean Gold Medal (1955).

Graham Kerr was one of the last of the famous zoologists of the nineteenth century, men who for the most pat were widely traveled, good naturalists, and who possessed an almost encyclopedic knowledge of their subject. Kerr’s output of zoological papers was considerable, especially in his early days, and included studies on the anatomy not only of the Dipnoi but of the pearly nautilus (genus Nautilus.) His outlook was essentially morphological and phylogenetic, and he tended to mistrust the experimental approach.

Kerr also took a great interest in devising camouflage according to natural and biological, or so-called dazzle, principles and upon the outbreak of World War I advised the British admiralty to use obliterative shading and disruptive patterns to make warships less conspicuous. His pioneering suggestion was eventually adopted and was used during World War II, even for land installations.


Kerr’s books include primer of Zoology (London, 1912); Lectures on Sex and Heredity Delivered in Glagow 1917-1918 (London, 1919), written with F. O. Bower and W. E. Agar; Textbook of Embryology(London, 1919) ;Zoology for Medical Students (London, 1921); Evolution (London, 1926); And Introduction to Zoology (London, 1929); and A Naturalist in the Gran Chaco (Cambridge, 1950).

An obituary appears in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 4 (London, 1958), 155-166.

Edward Hindle