On 19 February 1932, 459 years to the day after the birth of Copernicus, Joe Kerwin was born to Marie (nee LeTourneux) and Edward M. Kerwin, a Chicago businessman. Like the famed astronomer, he took his early education at a Dominican Catholic school, studied medicine at university, and would later take part in space studies and experiments (in Kerwin's case, aboard America's first space station, Skylab). And just like Copernicus, his work would help revolutionise many aspects of space science.
Joseph Peter Kerwin was born in Oak Park, Illinois, as the seventh of eight children. His father had a strong work ethic, rising to become the senior vice president of confectioners E.J. Brach and Sons, who operated a large candy-producing plant on nearby Kinzie Street.
Oak Park, locally described with superlatives such as ''The World's Largest Village'', is situated nine miles west of the Chicago loop. It has a double cachet -both as the birthplace of renowned writer Ernest Hemingway, and as home to the largest gathering of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and prairie-style dwellings. Originally built on a low sandy ridge, and just four-and-a-half miles in area, it remains stubbornly independent of Chicago, politically, socially and culturally. Around the time of Joe Kerwin's birth, Oak Park had a growing population estimated at 64,000 residents, but today that figure has dropped to around fifty thousand.
Like his older siblings, Joe went to elementary school in Oak Park, and then took his higher education at nearby Fenwick High School, a private Dominican Catholic college preparatory school in the Archdiocese of Chicago. It was here that Father Victor Feltrop, described by Kerwin as ''my special mentor and example,'' taught him Latin and German. In 1949, he graduated from high school, still with no clear picture of where his future should take him. ''I did have a fascination with astronomy, geology and science in general,'' he recalls when asked about his childhood interests.7
Despite the derision of his older brothers, Kerwin loved the adventure he found in reading science fiction novels, especially those by prolific authors such as A.E. Van Vogt and Robert Heinlein, while the C.S. Lewis trilogy became a special favourite. ''I was fascinated by the prospect of space travel, at one time even joining the British Interplanetary Society. I didn't expect it to happen in my lifetime, and when it began I didn't expect I'd have the slightest chance of participating.''
As Marie Kerwin once stated, her son's career path seemed of little interest to him at the time. ''He started college really with no idea of what he wanted to become. He was in college for a while before he tried medicine.''
In fact, he undertook his college education at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Here, he opted for a Bachelor of Arts philosophy major with a pre-med minor, thereby combining his loves for science and literature. ''At the beginning of junior year, when I had to go one way or the other, I went for pre-med.'' It was a decision that would help shape his future. He had two admired mentors at Holy Cross; Father William Keleher, his philosophy teacher, and Vincent McBrien, a man he describes as ''a brilliant math teacher.'' Both remained friends and occasional correspondents for years after he finished college.
In reminiscing about his days at Holy Cross, Kerwin recalled one unforgettable episode in 1951. ''I wrote a sophomore English paper about life on other planets. It came back from Father 'Fuzzy' Foran with a B-minus, and with the comment in red ink on the front page: 'The grammar and paraphrasing are fine, but the subject matter is a bunch of garbage.' I still have that paper and I chuckle about it every now and again!''
After graduating from Holy Cross in 1953, clutching his Bachelor of Arts degree
and pre-med minor, Kerwin knew he wanted to continue in medicine and entered Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. In his final year, he decided he wanted to study paediatrics, a science relating specifically to the care of infant children and treatment of their diseases.
While at Northwestern, he became casually acquainted with the Floor Supervisor at the university's hospital, an attractive young woman named Shirley Ann Good, known to one and all as Lee. They soon found an easy enjoyment in each other's company, and began dating. The romance managed to blossom even as he continued the travails of his medical studies, but those studies would prove worthwhile in 1957, when he was presented with his Doctor of Medicine degree.
Kerwin next applied for a residency in paediatrics, and was subsequently granted a military deferment. He took his internship at the District of Columbia General Hospital in Washington DC. During this time, the Soviet Union launched their first Sputnik satellite, but it did not have any memorable impact on the young intern. "I had no feeling of connection to Sputnik or the space effort at that time. I was merely a civilian guy going though an internship.''
Eventually, Kerwin realised that paediatrics was not where he saw his future and decided to withdraw before he became too involved. He wrote a letter cancelling the residency, which also meant that his military deferment would be automatically revoked. ''In the return mail I had a letter from Uncle Sam,'' was his wry recollection of the event.
Was this article helpful?