Kerr family members achieved much success and renown

About four years ago this column outlined the life and career of Rev. Hugh T. Kerr.

He grew up in Elora and Harriston, and as a Presbyterian minister was the first to host a religious broadcast on North American radio on pioneer station KDKA in his adopted city of Pittsburgh. He served a term as moderator of the American Presbyterian Church.

In 1930 he was the most famous Wellington County native, but today he is largely forgotten.

Kerr’s family had prominence as pioneers of Elora. His grandfather, William Kerr, was born in Paisley, Scotland. He joined the British army at 15, and had an illustrious military career. During the Napoleonic Wars he fought the French at several battles under Sir John Moore and the Duke of Wellington, including the Battle of Waterloo. Earlier he fought in the Peninsular Campaign in Spain.

In the Battle of Cambray William Kerr lost an eye. This was one of several injuries he received during his military career. He was part of the occupation force holding Paris after the war, and was discharged in 1819 with a small pension as a consequence of his lost eye.

At the age of 70, Kerr immigrated to Canada in 1861 with his son and daughter-in-law, settling briefly at Galt before coming to Elora. His son William Jr. was 28, and had apprenticed as a shoemaker. In Elora, the younger Kerr opened a shoemaking shop, first on Mill Street. Soon after coming to Elora, his wife Ann gave birth to Bill, the first of what would become a family of six sons and a daughter.

Two sons, William Jr. and Robert, stayed in Elora. A third son, Thomas, moved to the United States and died there, but his widow returned to Elora.

Among William Jr.’s sons was the famous member of the family, Rev. Hugh Kerr. Like the rest of the family, William Jr. had placed great emphasis on education. Although he and Ann raised a large family, they managed to provide all of them with advanced education. In addition to Rev. Hugh, another son, Alex, became a minister. Four trained as doctors: William, Thomas, John, and Robert. The seventh of the sons, James, became a lawyer, and for a time practiced in Elora.

The daughter, Mary, married a minister: Rev. Harry Pritchard of Toronto. He was, of course, a Presbyterian, as was the rest of the family.

The family probably set a record with all seven sons becoming professional men: four medical doctors, two ministers, and a lawyer. They dispersed widely, and today the family is virtually unknown locally.

A little better remembered today, especially in the Fergus area, was a great uncle of the distinguished brood. Robert Kerr of Fergus, whose father was also named Robert, was born in Scotland in 1861, and though an outstanding student, he did not go to university like many members of the family. He came to Canada with his family as a youth. They settled in Fergus to be near William Jr.’s branch of the family. Young Robert apprenticed as a tinsmith in Fergus, and soon took over the shop, located beside a store operated by his father.

Bob Kerr operated his tinsmith shop for decades, but his true passion was conservation, and especially the sorry fate of the Grand River in the early 20th century.

Beginning in the 1880s he began taking long hikes along the river, and recorded his observations in a series of notebooks. His was among the first voices advocating conservation measures. By 1900 he knew more about the Grand River than anyone.

Kerr’s voice was not a strong one: he hated self publicity, though he did manage to find a few converts to his cause. The most important one by far was Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record.

Templin began accompanying Kerr on his field trips, and soon became a much louder and more persistent advocate of conservation. After decades of campaigning and lobbying, their efforts culminated in the construction of the Shand Dam, completed in 1942.

Kerr never married. He lived until illness struck him in 1948, ending his favourite pastime of hiking along the Grand. His energy in his seventies exceeded that of men half his age. Templin admitted it had always been a challenge for him to keep up with Kerr, though he was more than 30 years younger. Kerr died later that year at the age of 87.

The Kerr family, like many from Scotland, valued education and learning above all else.

Robert Kerr did not go to university, but his work left its mark on Ontario and especially the Grand River valley.

The example of this family should serve as an inspiration to us today.

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I have a bulging file on the corner of my desk containing notes and clippings that might someday form the basis of columns.

One of the items in the file is a newspaper clipping describing the annual meeting of the Wellington County Medical Society from 1924, exactly 90 years ago. Unfortunately, I have been unable to uncover anything about this organization.

The clipping describes the 1924 annual meeting of the Wellington County Medical Society, which was held at the Guelph General Hospital on the afternoon of Oct. 28. It attracted about 45 doctors from Wellington County and part of Halton County, a far greater turnout than the group had attracted at four previous meetings that year.

The story stresses that the doctors met to promote the public good, and not for their personal benefit. The papers delivered at the session were planned to assist the doctors and help eliminate the problems they had to deal with in their daily practice.

The first paper delivered concerned the Schick test, delivered by Dr. Defries of Connaught Laboratories of Toronto. That test was the best method at that time to determine the susceptibility of a patient to diphtheria. The subject created much interest and discussion among the doctors. Diphtheria was then encountered occasionally. Today it is possible that no doctor in Wellington County has ever treated a case.

Also of much interest to the doctors was a paper on a new serum useful for the treatment of scarlet fever.

The group concluded the meeting by electing officers for the coming year. Honorary president was Dr. Abraham Groves of Fergus. Dr. H.B. Coleman of Palmerston served as president. Dr. N. Wallace was secretary. Dr. McCartier acted treasurer, and the executive committee consisted of Dr. King of Milton, Dr. Argue of Mount Forest, and Dr. Robertson of Elora.

The nurses and staff of Guelph General Hospital concluded the meeting with the serving of refreshments.

I have found some passing references to the Wellington County Medical Society from the past dozen years or so, but nothing about the activities of the organization.

Is it the same one that existed in 1924? Are there any minutes or annual reports available in existence?

I do not know, but I think the subject would a good one for a future column.

Perhaps some senior physicians reading this might know more about the early years of the organization. And I would be delighted to talk with other doctors who have been involved with the society.


Stephen Thorning