Allen Kerr was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was awarded the B.S. degree with honors from the University of Edinburgh, and the Ph.D. degree from the University of Adelaide. Dr. Kerr spent most of his exemplary career as a phytopathologist at the University of Adelaide. His previous honors include the Ruth Alen and E. C. Stakman awards, the Walter Burfitt Prize of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and the inaugural Ausralia Prize. He was elected a Fellow of the Australasian Plant Pathology Society, the Australian Academy of Science, and the Royal Society, a Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and an officer of the Order of Australia.
Dr. Kerr’s early research was on the soilborne fungi Rhizoctonia, Fusarium, and Pythium, with special reference to host-parasite relationships, interactions among pathogens, and influence of soil moisture on infection. During his tenure at the Tea Research Institute in Sir Lanka, he studied the epidemiology of blister blight of tea, developed a model relating disease incidence to weather, and successfully integrated the model with a user-friendly calculating device for implementation of effective control of this disease.
In Dr. Kerr’s own words, however, “My most important work has been a study of crown gall, one of the three known plant cancers. It is the only cancer, of either plant or animal, induced by a bacterium.” His work on this disease began in 1967, as an ecological study of agrobacteria in soil and on the roots of stone-fruit trees. It resulted in significantly improved understanding of the ecology and biology of the pathogen, and a unique and widely adopted biological method for control of the disease. Dr. Kerr’s findings and scientific leadership facilitated numerous cooperative projects with graduate and postgraduate students and colleagues throughout the world. Strain K1026, the genetically engineered organism for crown gall control, was the first such organism registered as a pesticide and released for general use. Dr. Kerr’s research led to the characterization of the chemistry of Agrocin 84, a new and very potent antibiotic with marked specificity. Other major contributions include fundamental research on the nature of bacterial conjugation, plasmid transfer, and conjugation factors. This work was of crucial importance in demonstrations by others that pathogenicity in Agrobacterium is encoded by the Ti plasmid. In addition to his investigations of crown gall of stone fruit, Dr. Kerr has conducted research on the transformation and regeneration of flax, control of cane gall disease of grapes, and annual ryegrass toxicity.
Dr. Kerr has served the science of phytopathology as president of the Australasian Plant Pathology Society, as vice-president of the International Society for Plant Pathology, and in numerous other capacities.