David Kerr – a reminiscence by Chris Winearls

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David Kerr – a reminiscence by Chris Winearls

Memories of Prof David Kerr CBE at the Hammersmith Hospital

CG Winearls

David moved to the Hammersmith in the mid 1980s  to be Dean of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School– he had been a gastro-enterology registrar there many years before. I was the senior registrar on the Renal Unit at the time.

David’s arrival was good news for the Renal Unit which had its strengths but these did not include dialysis. He offered to do a clinic in which he would review the long term HD patients once a year. When they were told they would have this special appointment with “the Dean”, those with  an awareness of ecclesiastical hierarchy , thought this was a prelude to a requiem mass. The letters that followed were an object lesson in clinical precision.

He saw new patients too. One was the wife of a Pakistani GP who had recently moved from Saudi Arabia, she was nephrotic. David diagnosed membranous nephropathy from mercury poisoning from skin lightening creams. He was right. Dr, later Professor, even later Sir Peter Mathieson presented the case at Grand Rounds and David told him not to give him credit for the diagnosis Peter disobeyed. But David had his way and was not an author on the case report. [1] I was impressed and some 12 years later in 2009 made the same diagnosis in Oxford remembering David’s coup. My junior staff thought I was barmy. We wrote the cases up and now find that these patients have an antibody not to PLA2R but to NELL1.[2]

David created a lectureship in nephrology, funded by Squibb, to provide an MSc Course in nephrology  for overseas doctors. I was the first Lecturer and course organiser. Dr Phil Mason was the second. I set them an essay on the history of dialysis. One candidate, employed by the Syrian police, wrote a superb essay which I gave to David to mark. David came to my office (booth would be more accurate) to say, “Could not have done better myself, in fact, I did it myself. This is a transcript of a paper I wrote for the Ulster Medical Journal.” The student was aggrieved at my rejecting his offering especially as payment for the transcribing typist had not been trivial.

David was involved in the enactment of the MRC decision to close the Clinical Research Centre (CRC) at Northwick Park and amalgamate it with the Royal Postgraduate Medical School (RPMS) at Hammersmith. There was a meeting with the enraged CRC staff which David chaired. The CRC boss was vicious. David reminded  him ( Sir Chris Booth) that he had once said that he would use any letter offering him an honour as toilet paper. This putdown, so unlike David, shut CB up.

In 1987 he was the Scientific Programme Lead for the London meeting of the ISN. He had no secretarial help and roped me in. He had one FAX machine and we used the RPMS photocopier. On Christmas Eve he blocked the Post Office in East Acton as he and I sent of the 2000 abstracts to multiple reviewers around the world.

To keep fit he would walk to and from his home in Acton – about three miles. How he found time to edit books, teach and run the RPMS is a mystery to me.

My last memory of him is when his wife phoned me at home on a Sunday to say he would like me to come to his home and take some blood from him. When I arrived he was having a rigor so I drove him to the hospital, admitted him and started antibiotics. I thought I should phone whoever was “on-take’. It turned out it was the Professor of Medicine but he was in Cambridge for Sunday lunch. He had to accept my clinical judgement. NMR scanning was being piloted at the time so the Professor thought David should have the obvious site of David’s infection imaged. This was a bit cruel as David was in the scanner for a couple of hours and his major symptom was urinary frequency.


[1] Postgraduate Medical Journal (1987); 63:303-304 Membranous nephropathy caused by mercury-containing skin lightening cream David B.G.Oliveira, Graham Foster, John Savill, Paul  D.Syme, Andrew Taylor. Renal Unit, Department of Medicine, Royal Postgraduate Medical School, Hammersmith Hospital, Ducane Road, London W12OHS,and ‘Robens Institute of Industrial and Environmental Health and Safety, University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 5XH,UK.

[2] Chakera A, Lasserson D, Beck LH Jr, Roberts IS, Winearls CG. Membranous nephropathy after use of UK-manufactured skin creams containing mercury. QJM. 2011 Oct;104(10):893-6.


Last Updated on May 17, 2023 by John Feehally