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KERR, Ian - WFP Obit Photo.jpeg


October 1, 1941 - December 3, 2020

Sadly, in the early morning of December 3, 2020, with his life-long companion, Kaye, by his side in their home, Ian succumbed to his courageous and hard-fought battle with ALS.

Ian was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. He often teased that he spent his childhood in mental hospitals in Scotland and England that was before his psychiatrist father accepted a position with the mental health hospital in North Battleford, Sask. Then the family moved to Sudbury, On. on to New Westminster, BC, then to Las Vegas, New Mexico and then to New York State.

Ian completed his undergraduate studies at University of Pennsylvania before graduate work at the University of Minnesota. There, his research culminated in a doctoral dissertation, “The British Impact on India: A Case Study of the Lahore and Amritsar Districts in the Punjab, 1849-1872.” He taught at the University of Missouri for a year, then moved to the University of Manitoba. Though he retired from the classroom in 1999, he continued his research and active writing on India primarily the development of its railroads, and most recently extended this to Labour History in an international context.

Ian pioneered research on Indian railways, most notably through his book “Building the Railways of the Raj, 1850-1900” (Oxford University Press 1995) which marked the thematic emergence of a new field in Indian historical studies. His many books, articles, book reviews, and essays inspired young scholars who will have access to his archives through the University of Göttingen, Germany. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, and the University of Manitoba funded his research. He held visiting fellowships at Curtin University of Technology (Perth, Australia), the International institute of Social History (Amsterdam), and Clare Hall (University of Cambridge) and an on-going appointment at SOAS (University of London, London). Throughout his career, Ian made an immense contribution, across diverse fields, to the teaching mission of the University of Manitoba History Department. In addition to courses in Indian, Chinese, and Japanese history, he taught an undergraduate course in historical methodology to aspiring teachers and contributed to courses in Political Studies and Asian Studies.


Ian was a team builder with every fibre of his being. From his student days in Minneapolis to his decades in Winnipeg, he contributed to the communities of students and scholars interested in South Asia. He worked on the establishment of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota and played a key role in initiating an Asia Studies minor at the University of Manitoba. He was a member of the Asian Studies Committee at the U of Manitoba. Always an active and respected colleague he served on the university Senate and many committees including those of the Asian Studies Centre, University College, Faculty of Arts, History department, and the University of Manitoba Faculty Association. He was president of UMFA, representative to  MOFA as well as major contributor to collective bargaining and served on the Pension Committee. Beyond the University, he was a member of the board and the executive of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, the Canadian Asian Studies Association, and the board of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.


Ian was also a team builder in adult recreation. He served as president of the Intermediate basketball league and vice-president of the Manitoba Amateur Basketball Association and was an early contributor to the Manitoba Runners' Association. Forty years’ worth of teammates can attest that his memory is also tied to his work as founder, coach, general manager, and player on a basketball team, the ID (Interdisciplinarians), a band of uncoachables who once won a trophy and more frequently did not.


Ian was a thoughtful and kind man, proud, patient, with an unassuming nature. He took pleasure in interacting with people from all walks of life and the dialogue would flow with ease. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and, as good listener, he was acutely interested in the conversation, regardless of the subject. An enthusiastic runner, Ian could be seen out for his regular morning run, or more recently, getting together with a few neighbors, affectionately called the "Boys Club", out walking briskly to their weekly coffee meet. 


Ian was a loving and devoted husband to Kaye, her wellspring of sage advice, and in concert, they were a constant source of support to one another. Keen on adventure, they travelled extensively over the years. Sanibel Fl. was a favorite annual vacation spot in the winter, England in the early spring. Their travels in recent years included Ireland, Portugal, Alaska, Malta, Mumbai, P.E.I, to name a few. Ian was an avid photographer and, with camera in tow, he captured the many cherished memories of their trips to faraway places. 


As welcoming and active participants in the social life of the community, he and Kaye were hosts to many wonderful and memorable summer garden parties. They worked tirelessly side by side each year to plant and nurture their lovely gardens, a bounty of flowers and vegetables. Friends and neighbours looked forward with anticipation to receiving their invitation to this special gathering. As the consummate hosts, they never disappointed and conversations flowed and good times were enjoyed by all. 


Faced with the monumental challenge presented by ALS, Ian fought with tremendous courage to be able to stay a little longer with his beloved Kaye.


He will be sorely missed.


"When I come to the end of the road

 And the sun has set for me,

 I want no rites in a gloom-filled room;

 Why cry for a soul set free?

 Miss me a little - but not too long

 And not with your head bowed low.

 Remember the love that we once shared.

 Miss me - but let me go.

 For this is a journey that we all must take

 And each must go alone.

 It's all a part of the Master's plan,

 A step on the road to home.

 When you are lonely and sick of heart,

 Go to the friends we know

 And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds.

 Miss me - but let me go."


In keeping with Ian's wishes, a garden tribute will be held in the summer at Kaye and Ian's home on a date to be decided later. 


With utmost gratitude to Palliative Care Manitoba, Dr. B Martin, Janice Nesbitt and team, Dr. Fultz and the Motor Neuron Clinic, and our caring and reliable Health Care Aides (Navjot, Bailey, Arvin, Jose and Amy).  Special thanks to Dianna Rasmussen of the ALS Society for the constant support and guidance. Deepest appreciation and love to our neighbours, friends and students who were there to help Ian with this monumental journey.


In lieu of flowers, donations in Ian's memory can be made to either:

ALS Society of Manitoba

2A – 1717 Dublin Avenue

Winnipeg MB R3H 0H2

or email to



The I.J. Kerr Legacy Archival Fund

(payable to K. Kerr)

944 Palmerston Ave.

Winnipeg MB R3G 1J9

The following obituary will appear in H-ASIA:


It is my sad duty to report the death after a long illness of Ian J. Kerr, Senior Scholar in History at the University of Manitoba, and Professorial Research Associate in History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. In his distinguished career, he established himself as scholar of the history and culture of the Punjab and, particularly, as an internationally recognized dean of the history of the construction and consequences of railways in India.

Ian was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and moved with his parents to various locations in England, Canada and the United States, ultimately settling in Youngstown, New York. It was there he met and married M. Kaye Stephenson entering a life partnership of 58 years. An early illustration of that partnership may be seen in how, during Ian’s doctoral studies, Kaye completed her B.A. in Zoology and M.A. and PhD. in Child Development. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962 and later that year joined the University of Minnesota where he studied with the late Professor Burton Stein. I first met Ian and Kaye in September 1962 when I was filling in for Professor Stein who had been delayed in his return from India. From that time forward I’ve treasured my friendship with the Kerrs and our meetings at conferences, the India Office Library and Seattle.

Burton Stein’s remarkable intellectual breadth offered his students a tremendous introduction to the interplay of history and social science. Stein’s advice was to utilize social science to generate fresh questions to enrich our comprehension of the historical past. Ian’s academic career richly fulfilled Stein’s premise as he grew to be a recognized scholar of the history and culture of the Punjab, and, I believe, the dean of the study of railways and their impact, first in India and subsequently in broader global contexts.


Ian completed his PhD in 1975 with a dissertation "The Punjab Province and the Lahore District, 1849-1872: A Case Study of British Colonial Rule and Social Change in India.” Following a one year visit at the University of Missouri, Columbia, he joined the History faculty of the University of Manitoba where he remained through his retirement in 1999. Subsequently he held appointments as Senior Scholar at Manitoba and Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.


He has published many books and articles dealing with the labour and transportation history of India. These include Building the Railways of the Raj 1850–1900 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995 and 1997);Railways in Modern India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001 and 2005); Engines of Change: The Railroads that Made India (Westport: Praeger, 2007, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2012) and, with John Hurd, India's Railway History. A Research Handbook (Leiden: Brill, 2012) David Washbrook, in reviewing Building the Railways of the Raj for the American Historical Review [103:2 (1999-8) 575] praised Ian’s “very acute” contributions “reminding scholars of colonial India of what they may have lost in the turn of recent years away from social history and toward cultural criticism.” Washbrook noted that while the book was specifically on railroads, “[w]hat Kerr conveys very much enriches, but also complicates, understanding of the colonial relationship in India.” In Kerr’s edited Railways in Modern India his introduction illuminated a continuing theme in his research, namely the idea that "railways were at the organizational and technological center of many of the interrelated economic, political, social and ecological transformations that produced modern India" (p. 3). Samantha Alvarez, in Technology and Culture 45(2004) 180, observed that Ian stressed the need for for a "generously conceived railway history" (p. 23).


Ian’s mastery may be seen in his review essay “Chugging into Unfamiliar Stations: A New History of India’s Railways: Tracks of Change: Railways and Everyday Life in Colonial India by Ritika Prasad. Economic and Political Weekly 51:17 (May 7, 1996). Conceptually imaginative, broadly conceive and elegantly written—it might be termed a “charter” for the continued growth of the field.


While much of his work might be characterized as “empiricist” in concept, he was prepared to engage with other approaches to his study—a wonderful example is his “Representation and Representations of the Railways of Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia.” Modern Asian Studies, 37:2 (May 2003), 287-326. Over the decades of his work, Ian’s collaborations with other scholars produced important contributions to the study of railroads and labor in global contexts.


Ian’s interest in the role of railway labor paralleled his active concern with the conditions of labor in the groves of academe. He played a significant role in the University of Manitoba’s faculty union and served on the board of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.


It is difficult to imagine the world without my friend Ian. He was a consummate scholar with an international reputation, yet he was always down-to-earth, open to conversations and friendships on all sides. He observed the world as if it were a diamond which, as one turned it, new facets were to be divined. I never saw him angry; he was always focused and engaged, even, I understand, as he endured his his horrible disease. It was a privilege to have known him, a privilege shared with scholars around the world.


I attach a partial bibliography which, possibly not complete, will illustrate the range of Ian’s scholarly contributions.


Frank F. Conlon

Professor emeritus

History, South Asian Studies & Comparative Religion

University of Washington, Seattle

Co-founder and editor, H-ASIA


Partial bibliography: Ian J. Kerr




Building the Railways of the Raj 1850-1900.(Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995; paperback ed., 1997)

Editor, Railways in Modern India (Oxford in India Readings. Themes in Indian History) (Delhi: Press, 2001; paperback, 2005).

Engines of Change: The Railroads That Made India. (Westport: Praeger, 2007)


Editor, 27 Down. New Departures in Indian Railway Studies, (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2007)


[with John Hurd], India’s Railway History. A Research Handbook. (Leiden: Brill, 2012)


Engines of Change: The Railroads That Made India. [revised paperback edition for India] (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2012)

Articles, essays reviews, etc.


"The British and the Administration of the Golden Temple in 1859," Panjab Past and Present 10 (1976), 306-21; "


"Urbanization and Colonial Rule in 19th Century India: Lahore and Amritsar, 1849-1881." Panjab Past and Present 14:1 (1980), 210-24


"Imperial Rule in the Punjab, India, 1849-1872: A Partial Test of Ronald Robinson's Theory of Collaboration," Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society 29 (July, 1981), 149-75


British Relationships with the Golden Temple, 1849-90," Indian Economic and Social History Review 21 (1984), 139-51. 15.


“Constructing Railways in India—An Estimate of the Numbers Employed” Indian Economic and Social History Review 20:3 (July-Sept. 1983).


“Working Class Protest in 19th Century India: Example of Railway Workers” Economic and Political Weekly 20:4 (Jan. 26, 1985)


“Fox and the Lions: the Akali movement revisited” in Sikh history and religion in the twentieth century Joseph T O'ConnellMilton IsraelWillard Gurdon Oxtoby, eds. (Toronto: University of Toronto, Centre for South Asian Studies, 1988)


Imperial Rule in Punjab:The Conquest and Administration of Multan, 1818-1881. in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, v507 n1 (01/1990): 153..


"Colonialism and Technological Choice. The Case of the Railways of India," Itinerario. European Journal of Overseas History, XIX:2 (1995), pp. 91-111.


Review essay. “Chugging into Unfamiliar Stations: A New History of India’s Railways: Tracks of Change: Railways and Everyday Life in Colonial India by Ritika Prasad. Economic and Political Weekly 51:17 (May 7, 1996)


“Discontent in Academia: Straws from Winnipeg”, Economic and Political Weekly    31:29 (July 20, 1996) 1924-26.


"Free or Unfree? Railway Construction Labour in Nineteenth-Century India," in Free and Unfree Labour. The Debate Continues, edited by Tom Brass and Marcel van der Linden. Bern: Peter Lang, 1997, pp. 405-426.


“Sikhs and state: troublesome relationships and a fundamental continuity with particular reference to the period 1849-1919 “in Sikh Identity: Continuity and Change. Eds. Pashaura Singh and N. Gerald Barrier. (New Delhi: Manohar, 2001)


“Representation and Representations of the Railways of Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia.” Modern Asian Studies, 37:2 (May 2003), 287-326.


“Labour Control and Labour Legislation in Colonial India: A Tale of Two, Mid-Nineteenth Century Acts.” South Asia. Journal of South Asian Studies, XXVII:1 (April 2004), pp. 7-25.


“On the Move: Circulating Labor in Pre-Colonial, Colonial and Post-Colonial India,” International Review of Social History, Supplement S14: Coolies, Capital and Colonialism. Studies in Indian Labour History, eds. Rana P. Behal and Marcel Van Der Linden (December 2006), pp. 85-109.


“British Rule, Technological Change and the Revolution in Transportation and Communication: Punjab in the Later Nineteenth Century,” in Textures of the Sikh Past. New Historical Perspectives, edited by Tony Ballantyne. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 157-184.


“Colonial India, Its Railways and the Cliometricians” The Journal of Transport History 35:1 (Jube, 2014) 114-120.


“Labour Relations and the processes of railway construction in Portugal, India and Africa, circa 1850 - circa 1910” [with Bruno Navarro and Hugo Pereira] in Railroads in historical context: construction, costs and consequences. Vol. 3. Ed. Anne MacCants et al. (Guimarães: MIT Portugal, 2014) 321-342.


Review: Smritikumar Sarkar, Technology and Rural Change in Eastern India 1830–1980 Indian Economic and Social History Review, 51:4 (October,2014): 555-557

”John Chapman and the Promotion of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, 1842-1850” in Across the borders : financing the world's railways in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Ralf RothGünter Dinhobl, eds. (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2016)


Review: Engines for Empire: The Victorian Army and its Use of Railways. By Edward M. Spiers. Journal of Transport History. 37:2 (December, 2016) 279-81.


“The Early Main Line Railway as Concept and Period, and its Utility for the History of Railways in 19th century India” in Early Main Line Railways: papers from the Inernational Main Line Railways Conference. Ed. Peter Cross-Rudkin. (Clare: Six Martlets Publishing, 2016).


“The Transfer of Railway Technologies and Afro-Asian Labor Processes within the British Empire”, HoST – Journal of History of Science and Technology 12;1 (October, 2018) 31-74

“Caminhos de ferro e desenvolvimento econômico na Índia e em Portugal: uma comparação entre as linhas de Mormugão e do Tua, c. 1880 - c. 1930 e adiante” “Railways and Economic Development in India and Portugal: The Mormugão and Tua Lines Compared, ca. 1880 to ca. 1930 and Briefly Onwards” with Hugo Pereira], Revista Brasileira de História 39:81 (May-August, 2019).




Entries in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography OUP, 2004 for Horace Bell (1839-1903); James John Berkley, Vol. 5, 399-400; Sir Bradford Leslie, Vol. 33, 4332-32; Sir Francis Langford O’Callaghan and Ralph Strachey. Vol. 52, 1014-15.


“Colonialism in later 19th century India: concepts and concerns” Papers of the Canadian Historical Association. 1975 In Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa.


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