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Born in Sydney, he was educated in Charters Towers and obtained a Goldfields Scholarship to Ipswich Grammar School 1914-1916. He joined the Agricultural Chemical Laboratory, completed Senior Examination by evening study in 1919, and enrolled as an evening student at the University of Queensland in 1920. He graduated with First Class Honours in Chemistry in 1923, and then was selected for a traveling scholarship in soil science and agronomy in 1924.

At the University of Wisconsin he gained a Ph.D., studying soil acidity under Emil Truog. A paper based on his thesis was presented at the first Congress of Soil Scientists in Washington D.C. While at Rothamstead Experiment Station he spent time with R.A. Fisher, who devised superior techniques in the design and interpretation of field experiments. On his return to Australia in 1928 he was appointed Chief Chemist of the BSES.

Kerr was a co-founder of the Queensland Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, with Norman Bennett and W.F. Seymour Howe. In 1929 he issued invitations to a planning conference in Mackay but, as BSES Director, refrained from attendance for political reasons. He was its President at the 1929 Conference in Ayr, and was elected a Life Member of the Society in 1961. When ISSCT members visited Queensland in 1932, Kerr organised the visit and the Queensland tour, and organised the erection of a Cairn to commemorate the founding of the Sugar Industry by Louis Hope at Ormiston.

On the death of BSES Director Harold Easterby in 1932, Kerr was appointed Acting Director, and then Director in 1933. With tremendous energy, he built up the Soils and Agronomy Divisions of BSES and applied the new experimental techniques to fertility investigations and field variety trials, and applied statistical methods to the final evaluation of the newly-produced varieties. He continued as Director until March 1943, when he was seconded to the Commonwealth Government Service as Chief Food Technologist in the Food Control Section of the Supply Department. He resigned from the BSES in March, 1945.

In 1949, the foundation Sugar Research Institute Directors had decided on Dr H.W. (Bill) Kerr as a suitable man to fill the position and the first Director of SRI.

Kerr first established himself in the Brisbane offices of the Australian Sugar Producers' Association in Creek Street in October/November 1949, and moved to Mackay at a later date.

His first task was to get the building project under way. By the time he took up his new appointment, arrangements for the purchase of land were well in hand, but the finalisation of building plans was floundering and required Kerr's attention.

So, too, did the sole staff member Kitchen, who was then working in the Pleystowe mill research laboratories. At the same time, the Queensland sugar industry had taken positive steps to revive the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists (ISSCT). At the last congress held in Louisiana in 1938, the society had not named a venue for its 1941 congress because of signs of impending war. The body was in danger of collapse when Queensland invited the ISSCT to hold its next congress in Brisbane in 1950. At the time of Kerr's arrival, preliminary activities were underway and he was drawn into the planning. As General Vice-Chairman, he was closely involved in the ambitious program which was considered a vital opportunity to show off the Australian sugar cane industry to the world.