Kerry Kirke headshot

Tribute to Kerry Kirke, a public health giant

Tribute to Kerry Kirke, a public health giant

Professor Nicola Spurrier, South Australia Chief Public Health Officer

(David) Kerry Kirke 14.11.1939 – 9.5.2021

Kerry was the sort of person everyone wanted to work with. He was visionary and planned for the future, he had a strong sense of social justice and most importantly he really cared for people and humanity. Kerry understood that the whole population was his patient, and that by intervening early at a whole of population level he could prevent large numbers of people becoming sick, injured or dying. Kerry trained and practiced in both paediatrics and public health medicine and through both areas of expertise made an enormous impact on the health and wellbeing of countless Australians.

Kerry undertook has medical training at the University of Adelaide completing this in 1964. After this he moved to Central Australia where he worked as a paediatrician, including as a flying doctor. He completed a doctoral thesis during this time which examined the causes of poor health in Aboriginal children, a very forward-looking and important research contribution particularly given that it was 1971. He was the Regional Director in Alice Springs in the early 80s, going on to become the Director of Public Health in Darwin thereafter. Kerry built on his experiences in Australia after being awarded a WHO travelling fellowship in 1976 to study epidemiology and medical statistics at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, childhood nutrition in India, training and the role of Indigenous health workers in Alaska, and middle ear disease in Navajo and Hopi children in New Mexico.

Fortunately for us, Kerry returned to South Australia in 1988 to the position of Executive Director of Public and Environmental Health with the South Australian Health Commission. During this time, Kerry built the foundations of modern public health in this state, which we still benefit from today. He established a very strong team and introduced significant innovations including the first community surveys and disease registries, taking advantage of South Australia’s new Public and Environmental Health Act 1987.

Kerry moved to the Cancer Council SA as the Executive Director 1998-2003, making significant enhancements to cancer prevention and control in this state. One of Kerry’s most notable contributions was bringing a culture of public health and evidence-driven practice to the Cancer Council. He promoted the concept of cancer control and the goal of ‘reducing the impact of cancer’ across the whole spectrum, from primary prevention to palliative care. Kerry also advanced this agenda nationally and internationally with other cancer leaders including at meeting of world leaders of cancer organisations in Atlanta, USA in 1999.

As a registrar commencing training in Public Health Medicine in the mid 90’s I was armed with the knowledge of a Master of Public Health; biostatistics, epidemiology, evaluation methodology, critical appraisal and the like. But Kerry took our training to the next level – the practicalities of putting theory into action to improve population health. Kerry was very generous with his time and through real-life examples educated and guided many trainees through the nuances of the Australian health care system, how to investigate an outbreak, how to deal with the media, responding to a population level disaster and how to navigate a complex government bureaucracy. Of critical importance for many of us now dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Kerry made a strong and enduring contribution to the Australasian Faculty of Public Health Medicine, being a foundation member, a College Councillor, on the AFHPM Education Committee, the Chair of the AFPHM Regional Committee and an examiner for many years. He was also the external examiner for NZ.


Prof Spurrier with Dr Kerry Kirke and Dr Wayne Clapton at their AFPHM graduation.


Not unexpectedly, Kerry received a number of significant awards during his career.

  • A Membership of the Order of Australia (AM) was conferred in 1984 for ‘services to paediatric nutrition’.
  • The inaugural Public Health Association of Australia award for leadership in public health in 1997.
  • In 2004 he was awarded the Royal Australasian College of Physicians medal for ‘services to the College’.

I was very lucky to continue working with Kerry for several more years as he moved into his retirement. Through a partnership with Martin Bray, a retired academic who was keen to develop a resource for the public on screening for disease, Kerry and I contributed significant sections to this publication. Whilst admittedly not a best-seller, I am sure it assisted many individuals to consider participating in public screening for cancer and chronic disease.

Kerry enjoyed a full and rewarding life that included more than work. He was a keen and accomplished sailor. During his retirement this culminated in building a wooden sailing boat in its entirety – an amazing accomplishment requiring attention to the old adage, ‘measure twice and cut once’. Kerry was also a proficient bushman, having developed skills such as crossing a flooded creek in a four-wheel drive during his time in the Territory. His family recount his expertise at swinging a pot of billy tea. Kerry was surrounded by his loving family during his final days. He is survived by his wife Barb, his two daughters, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Professor Nicola Spurrier
Chief Public Health Officer
Health Regulation and Protection
SA Health

The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) sends its condolences to Kerry’s family, friends and colleagues. The PHAA South Australia Branch will continue to commemorate Dr Kirke and his enormous contribution to public health through the annual Kerry Kirke Student Award. 


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