As much a product of an agricultural childhood as he was of his medical training, Dr. Walter S. Kerr Jr. brought a fix-it inquisitiveness to his work as a urologist, crafting innovative approaches to surgery that he passed on to generations of students.
“He took the time to really show us these techniques that were fairly intricate,” said Dr. David McCullough, who was among the residents Dr. Kerr taught at Massachusetts General Hospital 40 years ago. “He was not just doing the procedures and letting us watch. It’s like a pilot and a copilot in an airplane. He was the pilot and we were the copilots. It was just a marvelous way to learn.”
Former students and patients honored Dr. Kerr by endowing a professorship in urology at Harvard Medical School in recognition of the impact he had on his field.
“I think one of his main legacies is the fact that a lot of people ended up doing very well in their careers all across the country,” said McCullough, a retired surgeon who chaired the urology department at Wake Forest University. “That’s a mighty gift he gave to society, and I think a lot of people were saved by the techniques he taught us how to do.”
Dr. Kerr, whose hunger for learning showed no sign of abating as he closed in on the century mark, died March 31 in St. Andrews Hospital & Healthcare Center in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, of digestive ailments. He was 96 and had moved to Boothbay Harbor in 2010 after 55 years in Milton.
“He was the most intellectually curious person that I’ve known,” said a longtime friend, Dr. Peter Goldman, Maxwell Finland professor of clinical pharmacology emeritus at Harvard Medical School. “He just would delve into anything.”
Long a summer resident of Squirrel Island off Boothbay Harbor, Dr. Kerr would read a book about the life cycle of lobsters and become nearly as conversant as a lobsterman on the subject. At Mass. General, he was as friendly with maintenance workers as he was with the surgical staff, gleaning knowledge about plumbing and electrical procedures that he used at his island cottage.
“This guy learned from everybody,” said his son Scott of North Yarmouth, Maine. “They didn’t have to have a title.”
The ability to find knowledge anywhere wasn’t unusual for a physician who learned to deftly wield a knife not as a surgeon, but by taking a taxidermy course as a boy in Cohasset, where his father managed the Guernsey cattle on the estate of Dow Jones & Co. media magnate Clarence W. Barron.
While growing up, Dr. Kerr often traveled to England with his father, who went to buy cattle on the Isle of Guernsey. To distinguish his name from his father’s, Dr. Kerr was known as Buddy, and he combined the hands-on lessons of farm work with an approach to book learning that never ceased.
“He had an incredible memory and was a voracious reader,” said his son John of Milton. “He would read up to four books a week. He would have books delivered to him by the local library in Milton, and up in Boothbay he was on a first-name basis with the librarians.”
Born in Boston, the younger of two children, Walter Stratton Kerr Jr. went to Thayer Academy in Braintree, where he was one of three cum laude graduates in his class of 74 students in 1935.
He studied English at Harvard, graduating in 1939, and went to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1943.
While at a Brattle Hall dance during his Harvard years, he met Olive McIlwain, whose father, Charles Howard McIlwain, was a Harvard history professor. She married Dr. Kerr in 1940 after she graduated from Connecticut College.
After beginning an internship at Mass. General, Dr. Kerr entered the Army Medical Corps at the end of World War II and was stationed in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. He returned to Mass. General for a residency in surgery and urology and stayed with the hospital the rest of his career.
He also became a clinical professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, and as a teacher his “impact was enormous,” said Dr. W. Scott McDougal, emeritus chief of urology at MGH and the first Walter S. Kerr Jr. professor of urology.
Going beyond teaching, Dr. Kerr helped residents with their expenses, McDougal said.
“He would buy them a textbook of surgery and also would pay for some of our residents to go to national meetings and present their papers,” McDougal said. “In those days, there wasn’t a lot of money around to send residents places, and he just took it out of his pocket.”
In the 1960s, Dr. Kerr volunteered on the S.S. Hope, a medical ship that brought health care to developing countries.
“Every doctor wants to give back,” he told the Globe in 1966, “and some nurses have gone on working on the medical ship four to five years, so crucial is the need.”
Dr. Kerr served in the mid-1970s as president of the American Urological Association and established a prize in his name for scholarly papers that addressed ways to contain costs. In the nascent years of health maintenance organizations, his was an early voice warning about financial woes ahead.
“We must teach doctors, especially young ones, that they can give just as good care without spending as much money,” Dr. Kerr told reporters in 1977.
Dr. Kerr took readily to technology that helped him research endless topics. In his 90s, he had three computers and a Facebook account.
He also had traveled throughout the world with his wife, who died Feb. 15, and being outdoors always played a large role. In 1954, for the 15th report of his Harvard class, he summed up his previous five years in five words: “Sons, sailing, skiing, and surgery.”
In addition to his sons Scott and John, Dr. Kerr leaves another son, Robert, of Boothbay, and eight grandchildren.
The family will hold a reception to celebrate the lives of Oliver and Walter Kerr at 1 p.m. on June 1 in the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.
Although Dr. Kerr’s renown led to a professorship in his honor, a trace of mischievousness in his presence hearkened back to his farm childhood.
“He was always Bud to us,” Goldman said. “Little Buddy from Cohasset still existed when he was 85 and 90. He really was a lot of fun.”