'The Queen and I': Reflections on Meeting Queen Elizabeth II

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc


September 15, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

I'm David Kerr, professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford. As we enter a period of national mourning to remember Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I thought it would be worth a few moments of my time — and I hope yours — to reflect on my memories of the Queen and I.

All of us who are under the age of 70 years have never known any other monarch other than Queen Elizabeth, and she has been a constant in the backdrop of all our lives. I think the respect, admiration, love, and affection that has been generated from around the world shows her position as a global stateswoman and as somebody of historic importance. It's a strange time for the nation, causing each of us to reflect individually on the memories that we have.

I've met the Queen three times, on quite different occasions.

The first was at age 5 in 1961. This was on the backstreets of Glasgow at our tiny primary school, the North Street Primary School. The whole school was whipped out on the playground, where we were all given a white hankie and lined up on Maryhill Road. This is a main thoroughfare through the parts of Glasgow I come from.

It was November, I think, those misty, foggy days of yore, in post-industrial Glasgow. We stood for quite a while, and eventually a big flotilla of cars shot up Maryhill Road, possibly one with a royal inside. We all waved our white handkerchiefs absolutely furiously for those seconds it took for the cars to pass by. Then we were marched back into school again. It was very much part of our early days, showing respect for Her Majesty, for the crown.

Who knows where the Queen was going — possibly to launch a ship. There we were, waving our hankies furiously, not having the faintest idea of what was going on, why we were there, or any of the rest of it.

Move forward more than 40 years, and I had the great honor and pleasure to work with some fantastic colleagues in the UK and counterparts of ours in France to celebrate the centenary of the Entente Cordiale. The Entente Cordiale was a treaty signed in 1904, uniting the United Kingdom and France. We'd been at war on and off for 1000 years, near neighbors that we are, and finally, here was a treaty that really did bring a degree of concord, agreement, and convergence to our two great nations.

The centenary was in 2004. To her eternal credit, our Queen, head of state, and President Chirac, head of state of France, thought that they would celebrate the centenary by celebrating the work which their two nations had done around the delivery of cancer treatment and cancer research — a remarkable thing.

We were involved in helping to pull it together, and this gave me the opportunity to dine at the Palace of Versailles — what a treat — and then more intimately with the Queen and a number of senior colleagues from the cancer community in the UK at our ambassador's residence in Paris, which I think we actually bought in the times of our last defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte — probably the finest house in Paris.

That was quite an intimate occasion. There were 50 or 60 of us with the Queen, Prince Philip, and their various equities. We found the Queen to be highly intelligent, informed, charming, and witty, with a sense of humor. Nervous though we all were of being in her presence, it was a genuinely delightful evening.

The next occasion was a state banquet. This was the sort of return march to Versailles held in Windsor Castle. What a night out, goodness gracious me. There were about 120 or 150 guests of the good and great from both nations being represented at this beautiful 1000-year-old castle. There were live guards everywhere; the band of the Marines playing outside; Beefeaters, the historic guards of the Tower of London, patrolling the table as we ate. It was a magnificently beautiful setting in some huge hall in the heart of Windsor Castle, magnificently laid out with thousands of knives, forks, and spoons set there to confuse us.

My wife and I hoped that we'd be placed at the front end of it. Gordon Brown was there, the prime minister. It truly was the good and great. We thought we would be sort of stuck down at the far end of the table beside the courtiers, hearing gossip about the Queen.

To my, I have to say, horror, I got to sit beside Madame Chirac opposite the Queen, right at the heart of this extraordinary night out. It was a fantastic honor, but one that was rather nerve-wracking.

Madame Chirac was a very important French politician in her own right. As we sat down beside each other, I sort of mumbled some frankly pathetic schoolboy French, hoping to welcome her to the UK. Madame Chirac went over, touched my arm, and said, "My dear young man, thanks for welcoming in such beautiful French, but allow me to practice my English."

This is the quality of the people that I worked with. Again, it was a fantastic night.

What else did we learn about the Queen? She speaks very, very good French. President Chirac commented on the superb quality of her claret, which, for a French head of state, was an unusual thing. Again, it was strange to see in that formal setting, but it was a very convivial night out with fantastic grub and wonderful service. Then we had a musical interlude in one of the other great halls in Windsor Castle and it was utterly memorable.

There are two things to this — and this is a discussion for another day. The interesting journey from a ragamuffin waving a hankie, to getting to sit in one of the great castles of the world with one of the longest-reigning monarchs of all time; being able to bathe for a moment in her wit, beauty, elegance, and intelligence, which was fantastic. And also to see the power of convention, the power of convening that someone like the Queen has to bring together the good and the great, and to initiate, support, and promulgate in a way that was subtle.

Many friendships were born of that relationship, in terms of collaborations and work. Many technical things followed from that, in terms of working with my friends, David Khayat, from the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris, to the great Thomas Tursz from the Institut Gustave Roussy, deepening relationships between our two cancer communities.

It's a strange time for us as we wait for the state funeral. As we speak, the Queen is lying in state in the throne room in Holyrood Palace. I'm Scottish. She traveled down from Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands — depicted in the rather beautiful painting behind me by James Hawkins, whom I believe is Scotland's greatest living landscape artist — a place that the Queen loved and felt at home; a place in which she could throw off, for a moment, some of the shackles of the establishment and of her office, and to be with her family. The Queen will travel down to Edinburgh to lie for a moment in state before coming down to London.

Tens of thousands of Scots turned out to say goodbye and to show respect. It was fantastic. If I'm allowed to add one small note of discord, one of the things that struck me, particularly as the Queen's funeral cortege came through the intimately narrow streets of Edinburgh, was how many people were holding up their mobile phones and taking snaps.

I guess I'm old enough to feel a wee bit uncomfortable about that. I would rather that the crowds had stood with heads bowed and acknowledged the passing of a great woman, rather than recording, as I guess they were doing for history. For me, it struck a slightly discordant note.

There you are. The Queen and I. It forces me to think a little about the journey that all of us have made over the duration of her reign, showing, I think, the equalizing powers of education as a golden escalator that can close equity gaps — remarkably, one would say.

There is much to think about. It's one of those moments in history. Of course, we're looking forward to the reign of His Majesty King Charles III, but this is a chance to reflect on the remarkable reign of Queen Elizabeth II and our tiny part as citizens within it.

Thanks for listening. I welcome any comments any of you might have. Perhaps some of you met the Queen or royalty, or have been touched in some way by meeting the good and great. I would be very interested to hear what elements of your own journey that might have encompassed.

As always, thanks for listening. Goodbye — over and out.

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc, is a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford. He is recognized internationally for his work in the research and treatment of colorectal cancer and has founded three university spin-out companies: COBRA Therapeutics, Celleron Therapeutics, and Oxford Cancer Biomarkers. In 2002, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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