Dr. Claude Buchanan Ker

Dr. Claude Buchanan Ker (1867-1925)

Obituary of Claude Buchanan Ker, M.D., F.R.C.P. (Edin);
Medical Superintendent, City Hospital, Edinburgh

The Lancet, 14 March 1925, Vol 205, pp572-3

It is with deep regret that we have to announce the death of Dr. Claude B. Ker from pneumonia, on 4th March, 1925, in his fifty-eighth year.  His untimely death is a grievous loss to the City of Edinburgh and to its medical school.

Claude B. Ker was born and educated at Cheltenham and was the son of Dr. Claudius Buchanan Ker.  He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he graduated M.B, C.M. in 1890.  After holding house appointments in the Royal Infirmary and in the Simpson Memorial Hospital, he became interested in mental work and took the certificate of the Medical Psychological Association in 1891.  Impressed by the possibilities presented by the study of infectious diseases his interest turned to this branch of study, and in 1896 he wrote his M.D. thesis on typhoid fever, for which he was awarded a gold medal.  In that year he succeeded Dr. Wood as superintendent at the old fever hospital at High School Yards, Edinburgh, a post which was both difficult and dangerous; in fact Dr. Wood also died of pneumonia in the prosecution of his duties.  Dr. Ker saw the possibilities of providing the city with a fever hospital worth of its traditions and outs medical school, and with the aid of the late Sir Henry Littlejohn, then Medical Officer of Health, and the late Baillie Pollard, he worked hard and unceasingly till in 1903 he saw his object achieved when the fever hospital, in its unsatisfactory position in Infirmary Street, was closed down and the splendid set of buildings to the south of Edinburgh, well removed from the city itself, were opened as the City Fever Hospital.

He became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in 1898, and was elected a fellow of the College in 1901, and later became a member of the council.  He represented the College on the infirmary board of management and on the Scottish Board of the College of Nursing.  He was a University lecturer in infectious diseases.  As a research worker he showed the most thorough care in details, and he was a pioneer in introducing in this country the Schick test [ed. to assess susceptibility to diphhtheria].  He was the author of “A Manual of Fevers” and “Infectious Diseases, a Practical Textbook”, and by these two books he will be long remembered.  “A Manual of Fevers” was first published in 1911 and the second edition appeared in 1922.  Although primarily intended for the used of students, the manual has more than justified the hope expressed by the author in his first preface “that it might not cease to be useful when its owner has entered upon general practice”.  The first edition of “Infectious Diseases” appeared in 1909.  It is an authoritative and valuable book dealing with the diseases commonly met with in the British Isles, and is clearly the work of a skillful, observant and experienced physician.  The second edition, adequately supplemented by a study of recent contemporary literature was published in 1920.  His contributions to medical journals were numerous, and include, “Naphthols in Enteric fever”, “An Outbreak of Typhus Fevers” and “Isolation and Quarantine Periods”.  To our own columns he made editorial contributions whenever requested, and as it happens pathetically that one such article appears this week.  His medical reputation in the specialty of infectious diseases is not confined to Britain, for his works are well known abroad, especially in America, as University lecturer on infectious diseases.

We are indebted to Dr. Andrew Balfour for the following appreciation.  He writes: 

I would like to tell, albeit it briefly and imperfectly, what manner of man was ‘Claude B’ and how he came to gain the affection and esteem of all who came closely into touch with him.  Ker was intensely alive, intensely human, full of humour and sympathy, and utterly devoid of anything savouring of advertisement or self-seeking.  Withal he was a man of great force of character, with strong likes and dislikes and capable, very capable, of standing up for what he conceived to be the right.  Yet he very rarely found himself in conflict, for he possessed much tact and discretion and a store of patience which time and time again stood him in good stead. 

I first met him in 1896 when, having been appointed assistant physician at the Edinburgh City Hospital, I called at the Old Pest House, as we called it, at the foot of Infirmary Street to be interviewed by the medical superintendent.  I was shown into a small room and presently there entered with a brisk step and a curious swing of the body, a man of medium height, who wore a monocle through which an eye afflicted, though not unpleasingly, by an internal strabismus, surveyed me searchingly.  He wore a blue velvet tasselled skull cap, was clad in a long white overall, and carried a wooden stethoscope of prodigious length.  He spoke like an Englishman, kept flicking cigarette ash on the floor and his manner was decisive, even a little brusque.  He seemed to me rather nervous and I gathered he did not quite approve of my appointment, which had been made at the insistence of Sir Henry Littlejohn.  Certainly he made it quite plain that I was there to carry out his instructions, though he indicated also quite clearly, that he realised that I might have views of my own and that he was prepared to accord them every consideration.  As I told him long afterwards, my first thought was “How can I work under this man?”  Yet very soon I had fallen under the spell of his personality.  I realised that his was a choice spirit, that he was possessed of much originality of mind, that he was well-read and erudite, that he had wide interests, and was gifted with vision, though in no sense a visionary. 

I had some slight acquaintance with French history and I found that Ker was a great student of the Napoleonic era and I never tired of hearing him descant on Buonaparte’s strategy and recounting how he had secured the prints, statuettes and relics with which his room was filled.  Beyond doubt he might have been an admirable professor of military history, for he had a flair for tactics, and it was probably his military bent which led him to take a Commission, first in the Volunteers and then in the Territorials.  He was interested in sport and athletics, especially in Rugby football, had a keen sense of humour, and wrote most amusing and delightful letters in verse and prose.

We soon formed a friendship which stood the test of time and distance, and the memory of which will ever remain precious and fragrant.  But Ker had a host of friends.  It was the custom then, and I understand it remains a custom, for his old residents to gather in his room on Sunday nights.  No more profitable evenings can be imagined than these informal gatherings in the venerable building full of memories of Sit Walter Scott, of the anatomist Knox, and of Burke and Hare, the West Port murderers; Ker delighted in the history of the dingy pile, as he delighted in everything pertaining to Edinburgh, for though not a son of the city, though not a pureblooded Scot, and though educated at an English public school, the fascination of Auld Reekie held him in its grip.

It was largely Ker’s efforts that made the present City Hospital a credit to Edinburgh, while it is undoubtedly due in the main to him that it attained such a high degree of efficiency.  No man was ever more popular with his staff.  He had a way of getting the best of them and set an example of devotion to duty and of tireless yet painstaking energy which acted as a stimulus to all.  He found relaxation chiefly in his family life, in travel, and in the society of his friends.  At home he was a member of a small literary club which, beginning as the Heptagon became an Octagon.  Its membership was confined to a few medical men who met at each other’s houses.  He never missed a meeting throughout the 25 years of the club’s existence.

Stricken with influenza, Ker would not give in, for he had under his charge a desperate and septic case of scarlet fever in which he was deeply interested.  Despite vile and inclement weather he was up and about until literally driven to the bed where he died.  His memory will remain ever green in the hearts of those who knew his worth and valued his company and his friendship.  The fine City Hospital stands as a fitting memorial to his memory.  He is survived by his widow, two sons and three daughters, to whom we extend our sympathy.

Return to Ker Memorial Prize page.


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