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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kerr, Henry William (Bill) (1901–1993)

by Peter D. Griggs

This article was published online in 2017

Henry William Kerr (1901–1993), sugar technologist and research institute director, was born on 18 May 1901 at Randwick, Sydney, third child of Scottish-born Gabriel Kerr, mining-engine driver, and his English-born wife Ada Frances, née Markham. The family moved to Charters Towers, Queensland, in 1905. Bill attended the city’s Central Boys’ State School and, with a Charters Towers scholarship, Ipswich Grammar School (1914–16). He joined the Queensland Public Service in February 1917 as a junior assistant in the Chemical Laboratory, Brisbane. Having matriculated (1919) by evening study, he enrolled part time at the University of Queensland (BSc, 1924; MSc, 1926) and graduated with first-class honours in chemistry. Queensland’s Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations (BSES) had just instigated a travelling research-scholar scheme in an effort to improve the scientific training of potential staff members. He was awarded the scholarship for soils.

Leaving Brisbane in November 1924, Kerr studied sugar-production in Java, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Cuba, before spending two years in the United States of America at the University of Wisconsin (PhD, 1927). A paper based on his thesis on soil acidity was presented at the first International Congress of Soil Science, held in Washington DC in June 1927. Later in the year he also visited islands of the British West Indies and the Rothamstead Experimental Station in Britain, where he spent several months with (Sir) Ronald Fisher, who had devised superior techniques in the design and interpretation of field experiments. On 7 June that year at Madison, Wisconsin, Kerr had married Esperance Elizabeth (Betty) Freeman (d. 1976), a librarian.

Described as ‘a brilliant young Queenslander’ (Queensland Times 1928, 7), Kerr joined the BSES as a soils chemist on his return in September 1928. In the following year he was appointed head of the division of soils and agriculture. He also lectured part time (1931–39) at the Central Technical College, Brisbane. Having acted as director of the BSES in Harry Easterby’s absences, he formally succeeded him in April 1933. Kerr initiated field fertility trials and soil analytical procedures; originated properly designed, replicated experiments and the statistical analysis of results; and set up a much better system of evaluating the performance of new cane varieties. Expanding the BSES’s engagement with the State’s cane-growers, he began informing them about fertilisers and their use, and appropriate tillage and cultivation methods, through the Cane Growers’ Quarterly Bulletin, a new BSES-sponsored publication. He advised cane-growers on how to raise leguminous green manure crops to replace the nitrogenous fertilisers that were in short supply in World War II.

In March 1929, responding to mill-owners’ concerns about the poor performance of their factories, Kerr had invited managers, engineers, and sugar chemists to a planning meeting at Mackay. This gathering formed the Queensland Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, the organisation having as its primary goal the dissemination of technical knowledge on agricultural and milling topics. Kerr was the inaugural president and was elected a life member (1961). For the fifth triennial congress of the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, held in Brisbane in 1935, he arranged a tour of Queensland by members and the erection at Ormiston of a cairn to commemorate the founding of the State’s sugar industry by Louis Hope; he would also organise the society’s next Brisbane congress, in 1950.

During the war Kerr had served (1942–43) in the part-time Volunteer Defence Corps. Seconded to the Commonwealth Department of Supply and Shipping (later Commerce and Agriculture), Melbourne, in February 1943 he was appointed chief food technologist, responsible for supervising factories producing foodstuffs for the armed forces. The following year the Queensland Public Service commissioner, John McCracken, responding to representations from cane-growers and millers, pressed Kerr to return to the BSES. He resisted and eventually resigned from the State service in March 1945, deciding to remain in Melbourne to avoid disrupting his children’s education. Having taken a job in 1947 as an industrial chemist and technical advisor to the three Melbourne factories of the Beecham Group Ltd, pharmaceuticals manufacturers, by 1949 he had become dissatisfied with the work, the company, and its management.

In October 1949 Kerr returned to Queensland as director of the new Sugar Research Institute at Mackay. Funded by a group of millers, the organisation was devoted entirely to milling research. He ran the institute frugally and worked to gain the confidence of its financial backers. On numerous visits to member plants, he discussed problems with chief engineers, especially the performance of the milling trains and their crushing rollers. A theory he formulated influenced the design of the Donnelly feed chute which improved the crushing rate; the equipment was subsequently adopted by many Australian and overseas sugar mills. Kerr’s tenure, however, was characterised by repeated clashes with W. R. Crawford, the institute’s inaugural chief mechanical engineer; there were numerous causes, including disagreements between them over the conduct of experiments and ‘personal difficulties [that were] adversely affecting Crawford’s performance’ (Reid 1999, 74).

On retiring in March 1961, Kerr became a sugar-industry consultant, based at St Lucia, Brisbane. He supervised (1961–63) a sugar project in the Iranian province of Khuzestan; coordinated (1964) a sugar-production expansion program in Queensland; studied and reported (1965) on the feasibility of sugar-cane production in Malaysia; consulted (1966–67) on the Kenyan sugar industry; directed (1969–72) sugar-cane research in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); examined (1973) agricultural activities in Jamaica, especially the decline in the output of the island’s sugar industry; and led (1978) an international study that investigated the potential for expanded sugar production in Ghana. 

Kerr published many papers in journals—such as the Cane Growers Quarterly Bulletin, the Proceedings of the Queensland Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, and the Proceedings of the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists—or as BSES farm bulletins or technical communications. He and A. F. Bell co-wrote The Queensland Cane Growers’ Handbook (1939), which assembled all the current cultivation and fertiliser advice recommended by the BSES.

In appearance Kerr was of slim build; he wore spectacles because of short-sightedness. Well-spoken and forthright, he delivered his point of view firmly; his official memoranda, in neat handwriting, left no doubt of his intentions. Although strict with his staff, he encouraged those with talent and assisted many people to make successful careers in the sugar industry. Family members found him a generous, humble, and quiet man, always attentive to them and interested in their activities. He played lawn bowls and sang in church and community choirs. On 9 July 1993 he died in Brisbane and, following a Uniting Church service, was cremated. His three daughters and one of his three sons survived him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Catchpoole, Jean. Personal communication
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘To Be Sugar Millers’ Research Chief: Big New Post for Dr H. Kerr.’ 8 October 1949, 3
  • John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. M991, Henry William Kerr Papers
  • Kerr, John D. ‘Introduction of Statistical Design and Analysis by the Queensland Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations.’ Australian Journal of Statistics 30B, issue 1 (August 1988): 44–53
  • Kerr, Ruth. Personal communication
  • Nambour Chronicle and North Coast Advertiser (Queensland). ‘Extracts from Report Made by Dr H. W. Kerr, Soils Scholar, 1927.’ 13 January 1928, 6
  • Queensland State Archives. 934645, Personnel file, Henry William Kerr
  • Queensland Times (Ipswich). ‘Sugar Research: Dr H. W. Kerr Returns.’ 4 September 1928, 7
  • Reid, Jane Ferrier. The Long View: The History of the Sugar Research Institute 19491999. Mackay, Qld: Sugar Research Institute, 1999

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter D. Griggs, 'Kerr, Henry William (Bill) (1901–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 21 October 2020.

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