Kerr, Charles Baldwin

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Charles Kerr founded the first Genetic Counselling Clinic in NSW in 1967. He also provided some initial estimates of mutation rates and gene linkage for genes on the human x-chromosome. In addition, Charles contributed information from a large number of NSW families to the international multi-centre trial that found adequate dietary folic acid was essential for preventing neural lobe birth defects. He also established the Master of Public Health program within the Faculty.

Charles Baldwin Kerr was born in Hastings, England in 1932. He entered the medical course at St Andrew’s University, Scotland in 1950, before migrating to Australia in 1953 and graduating in medicine from the University of Sydney in 1957. He completed his residency at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital to become a Marian Clare Redall and Joseph Godburn-Smith Fellow in Medicine at the University of Sydney from 1962 to 1964. However, Charles lived in Oxford, England from 1962 to 1965, having also received a Postgraduate Medical Foundation Overseas Fellowship from the Medical Research Council to work in the Population Genetics Research Unit. His main area of research was in the population genetics of human x-linked diseases in order to estimate gene frequencies, mutation rates and gene linkage, and to identify means for detecting the carrier state in females. During this time, he was also an Honorary Medical Officer at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

On return to Australia in 1966, Charles was appointed Lecturer in Human Genetics at the University of Sydney. He also became Research and Teaching Officer in the Commonwealth Department of Health’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. With the retirement of Sir Edward Ford in 1968, Charles became Professor and Chair of Social and Preventive Medicine with the distinction of being the youngest person to be appointed to that position.

In 1967 Charles founded the first Genetic Counselling Clinic in New South Wales at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. Later in 1978, he opened a similar clinic at Westmead Hospital. These clinics were concerned mainly with estimating the risks of recurrence of serious disease in families having one or more members with an inherited disorder. As methods for detecting severe abnormalities in foetuses were progressively developed, couples at risk to a harmful outcome were offered prenatal diagnosis and the option of selective termination of affected pregnancies.

Charles was responsible for the reconstruction of the Diploma of Public Health in 1969 and in 1978, was involved in designing and introducing the Master of Public Health program to the University of Sydney, the first of its kind in Australia. The program was to be open to all suitable graduates, rather than only to graduates of medicine as the former Diploma of Public Health had been. Charles also led the major revision of the Master of Public Health degree that occurred in 1988 and has been pivotal in guiding the Faculty through the major changes in postgraduate education that have occurred in Australia over the past 30 years.

From 1975 to 1976 Kerr was a commissioner on the Ranger Uranium Enviromental Inquiry, whose report formed the basis of subsequent federal government policy on the mining, milling and export of uranium. He also chaired the Expert Committee on the Review of Data on Atmosphere Fallout Arising from British Nuclear Tests in Australia in 1984. This report formed the basis of the Australian government’s decision to establish the Royal Commission on British Nuclear Tests in Australia.

From 1978 to 1980 Charles was President of the Family Planning Association of New South Wales, and between 1970 and 1999, was Director of the Anti-Tuberculosis and Community Health Association of New South Wales. He was a Foundation Member of the Human Genetics Society of Australia and President of this organisation from 1981 to 1983. From 1985 to 1987 he served as Director of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. In his capacity as the School’s last director, Charles led negotiations for the eventually successful transfer of staff from the School to the University of Sydney and other institutions.

Charles’s research in human genetics has included identifiying gene-environment interactions in the aetiology of neural tube defects and conducting gene frequency and linkage studies for X-linked mutations. His public health research has focused on two main areas: environmental health issues and the adverse health effects of unemployment, including the association between unemployment and youth suicide. He has also published papers concerned with the health of aboriginal people, the homeless, immigrants, people with handicaps and the aged.

In 1995, Charles was appointed Sub-Dean of Rural Health at the University of Sydney, and within this role assisted in the foundation of the Department of Rural Health in Broken Hill.

He has served as a consultant to UNESCO, the World Health Organization, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the World Council of Churches. Charles has been editor of a number of medical journals: the Journal of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital from 1969 to 1975; the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Medicine from 1970 to 1975; and the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health from 1990 to 2000.

In 2001 Charles was appointed Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney and made a Member of the Order of Australia “for service to medicine in the fields of public health and human genetics, and to education” in 2004.[1]

Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Kerr, Charles Baldwin. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.