John Graham Kerr

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John Graham Kerr
John Graham Kerr.jpg
Born 18 September 1869
Died 21 April 1957
Nationality Scottish
Fields embryology, camouflage
Alma mater University of Edinburgh
Christ's College, Cambridge
Known for embryology of lungfishes, dazzle camouflage
Influenced Hugh B. Cott
Notable awards Linnean Medal (1955)
Fellow of the Royal Society[1]
MP for Combined Scottish Universities

Sir John Graham Kerr FRS[1] (18 September 1869 – 21 April 1957),[2] known as Graham, was a Scottish embryologist and Unionist Member of Parliament (MP). He is best known for his studies of the embryology of lungfishes.[3] He was involved in ship camouflage in the First World War, and through his pupil Hugh B. Cott influenced military camouflage thinking in the Second World War also.

Early life[edit]

Born in Hertfordshire to Scottish parents, Kerr was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and at the University of Edinburgh, where he read medicine.[4][5]


Kerr interrupted his medical studies to join an Argentinian expedition to study the natural history of the Pilcomayo River. On his return, he studied natural sciences at Christ's College, Cambridge, graduating with first class honours in 1896.[4] The Argentinian expedition had ended with the loss of most of the collections, but after graduating he mounted an expedition to the Gran Chaco, bringing home a large collection of material related to the South American lungfish, Lepidosiren paradoxa.[6] Kerr was accompanied by John Samuel Budgett, who studied the frogs of the area and discovered a new genus.[7][8]

After a spell at Christ's College, Cambridge, he was appointed in 1902 as Regius Professor of Natural History in the University of Glasgow, where he stayed until 1935.[5][9] Kerr was particularly interested in teaching medical students, and published widely. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1909,[1] and received LLDs from the University of Edinburgh in 1935 and the University of St Andrews in 1950.[10]


Kerr made early contributions to ship camouflage in the First World War. He wrote to First Sea Lord Winston Churchill on 24 September 1914, advocating camouflage by disruptive coloration — breaking up outlines with patches of strongly contrasting tone — and countershading — shading guns into invisibility with lighter paint below, darker paint above.[11] Kerr openly supported the controversial camouflage claims of American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer.[4] Kerr's aim was to make ships difficult to spot and fool range finders by disrupting their outlines, or in his own words "to destroy completely the continuity of outlines by splashes of white", to make ships harder to hit with gunfire at long range. Kerr's principle was applied to ships in various ways, but Kerr found it difficult to promote or control the use of his camouflage ideas, and they fell out of favour after Churchill's departure from the Admiralty. The Royal Navy reverted to plain grey. A rival proposal for disruptive camouflage emerged in 1917 from the marine artist Norman Wilkinson. Wilkinson, unlike Kerr, had little difficulty fitting in with the naval establishment, and was put in charge of a large-scale program of painting ships in disruptive patterns that became known as "Dazzle camouflage". After the war, Kerr engaged in an unsuccessful legal dispute over the credit for creating dazzle camouflage.[12] Wilkinson successfully promoted the false idea that Kerr's camouflage sought invisibility rather than image disruption.[11]

Kerr again influenced British camouflage in the Second World War, this time through his pupil Hugh B. Cott.[13]


Kerr was elected as MP for the Combined Scottish Universities at a by-election in 1935 after the MP and novelist John Buchan resigned his seat when he was appointed as Governor General of Canada.[14] After his election to Parliament, Kerr resigned his professorship,[15] and moved to Hertfordshire. He held the seat until the university constituencies were abolished for the 1950 general election,[16] serving for a time as chairman of the parliamentary scientific committee.[10] He was knighted in the King's Birthday Honours in 1939[17][18]


The Zoology Building[19] of the University of Glasgow was renamed the Graham Kerr Building for him.[5]


  1. ^ a b c Hindle, E. (1958). "John Graham Kerr 1869-1957". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 4: 155. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1958.0014. 
  2. ^ Historical list of MPs: S (part 2)
  3. ^ Kerr, Sir John Graham. (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  4. ^ a b c "Kerr, John Graham (KR892JG)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ a b c "The University of Glasgow Story". Sir John Graham Kerr. University of Glasgow. Retrieved 26 July 2012. 
  6. ^ Who's Who in Glasgow 1909
  7. ^ Budgett J. S. (1899) Notes on the Batrachians of the Paraguayan Chaco, with observations upon their breeding habits and development, especially with regard to Phyllomedusa hypochondrialis, Cope. Also a description of a new genus. Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Sciences 2 : 305–333.
  8. ^ Kerr, J.G.(1950). A Naturalist in the Gran Chaco. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press
  9. ^ The post was renamed the following year, 1903, as Regius Professor of Zoology.
  10. ^ a b Dictionary of National Biography: Kerr, Sir (John) Graham (1869–1957)
  11. ^ a b Forbes, Peter (2009) Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. Yale. ISBN 0300178964. pp. 85–92 and 97–100.
  12. ^ Murphy, Hugh and Bellamy, Martin (April 2009). "The Dazzling Zoologist: John Graham Kerr and the Early Development of Ship Camouflage". The Northern Mariner XIX (2): 177–182. 
  13. ^ Forbes, Peter (2009) Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage. Yale. ISBN 0300178964. pp. 139–142.
  14. ^ London Gazette Issue 34175 published on 28 June 1935. Page 1 of 80
  15. ^ London Gazette Issue 34211 published 25 October 1935. Page 2 of 74
  16. ^ Craig, F. W. S. (1983) [1969]. British parliamentary election results 1918–1949 (3rd edition ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. ISBN 0-900178-06-X. 
  17. ^ London Gazette Issue 34633 published 6 June 1939. Page 2 of 24
  18. ^ London Gazette Issue 34646 published 18 July 1939. Page 2 of 104
  19. ^ "Estates and Buildings: Timetabling". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 12 December 2013. 


  • A Textbook of Embryology with the Exception of Mammalia (1914–19)
  • Zoology for Medical Students (1921)
  • Evolution (1926)

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Noel Skelton and
George Morrison
John Buchan
Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities
With: George Morrison, to 1943;
Noel Skelton, to Nov 1935;
Ramsay MacDonald, 1936–1937;
Sir John Anderson, 1938–1950;
John Boyd Orr, 1945–1946;
Walter Elliot, 1946–1950
Constituency abolished