Sir Kerr Grant was born on 26 June 1878 at Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, elder of two sons of William Grant, a Scottish flour-miller and grazier and his wife Janet Langlands, née Kerr. Kerr Grant won a scholarship to John O'Hara's South Melbourne College and in 1897 entered the University of Melbourne with a residential scholarship to Ormond College. He enrolled in engineering, but specialized in mathematics and won first-class honours (B.Sc., 1901; M.Sc., 1903). After lecturing at the Ballarat School of Mines for two years he returned to Melbourne as a tutor at Ormond.
In 1904 he studied at the University of Göttingen where he mastered German, attended Felix Klein's lectures and was paired with Irving Langmuir in H. W. Nernst's practical classes. On vacation, he cycled from Paris to Rome.
Returning to Melbourne, Kerr Grant joined the university's natural philosophy department where he collaborated with Bertam Steele in the construction of a micro-balance sensitive to one-millionth of a milligramme. An account of this fine work was communicated to the Royal Society of London by Sir William Ramsay who built a Steele-Grant balance and used it to determine the atomic weight of radon.
In 1909 Kerr Grant became acting professor of physics at the University of Adelaide following the resignation of William Henry Bragg and in 1911 he became Elder professor. A year earlier he had married Kate Macaulay Moffatt and they settled permanently in a large house in the suburb of St Peters.
During his long tenure of the chair, Kerr Grant established himself primarily as a teacher and a public figure. Among his students were Hugh Cairns, Howard Florey and Mark Oliphant.
He wrote in his Life and Work of Sir William Bragg (Brisbane, 1952) that research was 'regarded as a natural and unforced product of academic employment and intellectual interest; subordinate nevertheless, to the performance of the professor's contractual obligation to train his students in the discipline of his special science, and to serve the general public as an authority and consultant on whom reliance could be placed for trustworthy information or wise counsel in all matters relating to his particular province of expert knowledge'. This aptly summarizes his own credo.
The most significant original work done in Kerr Grant's department stemmed from the year he spent in 1919, at Langmuir's invitation, in the laboratories at the General Electric Co. at Schenectady, United States of America. Kerr Grant was intrigued by Langmuir's work on molecular films and, on his return to Adelaide, successfully urged R. S. Burdon to study such films on mercury.
In 1927 he visited Europe and Britain to inspect laboratories and universities, and purchased modern equipment for Adelaide. He was particularly impressed by the Radium Institute of the Vienna University. He went abroad again in 1931 and investigated developments in radium therapy for the treatment of cancer. On his return he reported his findings to the cancer research committee at the university.
In World War II some of his department's resources were directed to war work and Kerr Grant became chairman of the Scientific (physics) Manpower Advisory Committee, controller of the Adelaide branch of the Army Inventions Directorate, a member and later chairman of the Optical Munitions Panel (of the Ordnance Production Directorate), and a member of the physical and meteorological sub-committee of the Chemical Defence Board.
In 1947 he was knighted. Next year he retired and was created emeritus professor.
He was admitted to hospital with a fractured hip and died of pneumonia on 13 October 1967, survived by his wife and three sons who pursued medical and scientific careers.Biographical SourceAdapted from Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983