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Keast, Asdruebal James (1892–1980)

by D. F. Fairweather

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Asdruebal James Keast (1892-1980), mining engineer, was born on 21 June 1892 at Dimboola, Victoria, son of James Keast, a Cornish-born farmer, and his wife Rose, née Oldfield, from South Australia. Because the family moved to South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland before settling in 1907 in New South Wales at Broken Hill, young Keast's schooling was meagre and interrupted. On obtaining work as an assayer with the Zinc Corporation Ltd's mine, he began night-classes at Broken Hill Technical College.

On 15 May 1915 Keast enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 7th Field Ambulance, he embarked for the Middle East. He served at Gallipoli and in France (from March 1916) where he was promoted lance sergeant. At Pozières in July, although wounded and blown off his feet by shells, he organized bearers and continued to carry stretchers, for which he was awarded the Military Medal. Evacuated to England, he was discharged from the A.I.F. on 2 January 1917. He was commissioned in the Royal Engineers next day and sent to Mesopotamia where he worked on water-supply.

Through a British postwar training scheme, Keast travelled to the United States of America and studied at the Michigan School of Mines, graduating top of his year as a mining engineer in 1923. For the next twelve years he was employed at mines in Canada and gained a reputation as a fine planner and manager. On 29 January 1925 at San Francisco, California, he married with Catholic rites Marie Adele Burton, an Australian-born typiste.

In 1936 W. S. Robinson recruited Keast to manage the Zinc Corporation's mine at Broken Hill. His main task, to reconstruct the entire operation, was completed in three years. Aware of the depressing living conditions at Broken Hill and supported by his metallurgist (Sir) Maurice Mawby, he backed the ideas of Albert Morris, an assayer and amateur botanist, on regenerating native flora in the dust bowl surrounding the city.

By 1946, when Keast left Broken Hill for Melbourne, he had become chief general manager (mines and works) of both the Zinc Corporation and New Broken Hill Consolidated Ltd. In October that year he accepted the post of general manager of Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd, at Port Pirie, South Australia, which he visited regularly from Melbourne, again instituting improvements to the plant and the town. Late in 1950 he was placed in charge of the construction of an aluminium smelter at Bell Bay, Tasmania, as general manager of the Australian Aluminium Production Commission.

During this period Keast was also a director of Australian Oil Exploration Co. Ltd. His next assignment, beginning late in 1955, was to develop the Mary Kathleen uranium deposit in North Queensland for the English-based Rio Tinto Co. Ltd. There he created one of the best-planned and most successful mining operations in Australia's history. He was appointed managing director of Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd in 1958, a director of Rio Tinto Mining Co. of Australia Ltd in 1959 and a director of Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd in 1962. He retired from M.K.U. and resigned from all boards in 1963, but remained a consultant for C.R.A. Ltd until 1969.

A member (from 1939), councillor and president (1946) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Keast was awarded its medal in 1963. He also belonged to similar institutes in Canada and the U.S.A. In 1957 he was appointed C.B.E. He received an honorary doctorate of engineering (1956) from Michigan College of Mining and Technology and of science (1957) from the University of Ottawa; he was awarded the Kernot medal by the University of Melbourne in 1962 and made a distinguished alumnus of Michigan Technological University in 1970.

'A.J.' kept fit through diet and exercise, and was virtually a teetotaller. In photographs he carried his head high; his gaze was clear and fearless, and his stance challenging. He was a keen Freemason and his hobbies were tree-planting and painting. In 1974 he privately published his autobiography, Straws in the Wind. Robinson described him as 'one of the most notable figures' with whom he had been associated: 'he had determination, courage, imagination and a capacity for hard work rarely equalled but never excelled, though, as he himself fully admitted, he did not always get on well with his staff'. Keast's energetic, impatient and aggressive nature did not suit him for managing people in situations of static production. Survived by his wife and two daughters, he died on 17 March 1980 at Kew, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • B. Carroll, Australian Made (Melb, 1987)
  • R. H. Harding, Wholeheartedly and at Once (Melb, 1992)
  • J. Dew, Mining People (Melb, 1993)
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, no 274, June 1980
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Citation details

D. F. Fairweather, 'Keast, Asdruebal James (1892–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keast-asdruebal-james-10664/text18953, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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