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O'Brien, Claude Harding (1879–1960)

by Peter D. Griggs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Claude Harding O'Brien (1879-1960), sugar-technologist, was born on Christmas Eve 1879 in Sydney, son of Richard William O'Brien, a coach painter from Wales, and his native-born wife Elizabeth Ann, née Barden. The family moved to Glebe and Richard set up as a bootmaker. Although Claude did not matriculate, he was permitted to study first-year science at the University of Sydney in 1900.

In September 1901 O'Brien joined the newly established Queensland Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations as a junior assistant-chemist. After working in its laboratories at Bundaberg, he went to Fiji in 1903 as chief chemist for the Fiji Sugar Co. Ltd. He returned to Bundaberg in 1905 as supervising chemist at the State's central mills. At St Mary's Catholic Church, Bundaberg, on 2 March 1908 he married Louise Clarissa Marie Nogues. Two months later he became chief sugar chemist at Mossman Central Sugar Mill Co. Ltd. From 1909 he was employed by the Mulgrave Central Mill Co. Ltd where he made his two biggest contributions to the Queensland sugar industry.

First, in 1915 O'Brien designed apparatus that assisted in determining the amount of fibre in the cane being crushed. His patented machine, known as a cane fibrator, became standard laboratory equipment in the State's sugar-mills. Secondly, in the same year he and Dr J. H. Reed were asked by the Cairns Cane Growers' Association to investigate systems of payment for cane. Their investigation followed complaints from growers that it had proved impossible to harvest all their crops at a time when each had maximum juice content and thus its highest value. O'Brien and Reed developed the relative percentage scheme by which growers, no matter when their cane was harvested, suffered no loss. This scheme was eventually endorsed by the Australian Sugar Producers' Association and adopted by mills throughout Queensland as the basis for paying their suppliers.

In October 1915 O'Brien was appointed chemist to the Central Cane Prices Board, Brisbane. The board was established under the Regulation of Sugar Cane Prices Act (1915) to hear appeals from local bodies (consisting of miller and grower representatives) which set the prices paid for cane. O'Brien wrote numerous dissenting memoranda in which he calculated the costs of cane production and sugar-manufacture differently from other board-members. Despite being described as a 'bit too troublesome', he was reappointed in 1922.

After the A.S.P.A. had received a request from the South African Planters' Association for a qualified sugar technologist to advise their planters on Australia's system of payment for cane, in August 1922 O'Brien was granted six months leave to visit South Africa. His recommendations—which covered the establishment of a sugar experiment station, the types of cane to be grown, and payment for cane by sucrose content—were subsequently implemented in that country. Early in 1925 he left the board to return to his former post at the Mossman mill. In 1930 he rejoined the A.S.P.A. as a technical adviser. Following the retirement of E. J. T. Barton in May 1935, O'Brien also edited the association's monthly publication, the Australian Sugar Journal.

O'Brien was a foundation member (1917) and committee-member (1933-35) of the Queensland branch of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute, and a founder (1929) and executive-member (1931-37 and 1941-50) of the Queensland Society of Sugar Cane Technologists. He represented the A.S.P.A. at congresses of the International Society of Sugar Cane Technologists, in Brisbane (1935, 1950) and Louisiana, United States of America (1938). His published papers were limited to one address (1934) to the A.C.I.'s Queensland branch and two talks (1930 and 1949) to the Q.S.S.C.T.

Although O'Brien retired as editor in 1950, he continued as the A.S.P.A.'s technical adviser until 1954. At the request of the association's executive he wrote (1951-53) a series of articles on the history of the Australian sugar industry for the Australian Sugar Journal. Survived by his wife, daughter and son, he died on 4 November 1960 in East Brisbane and was buried in Hemmant cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Kerr, Northern Outpost (Mossman, Qld, 1979)
  • Australian Sugar Journal, 14, no 6, 1922, 14, no 11, 1923, 22, no 1, 1930, 41, no 10, 1950, 52, no 8, 1960
  • Producers' Review, Nov 1960
  • International Sugar Journal, 63, no 747, 1961
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter D. Griggs, 'O'Brien, Claude Harding (1879–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/obrien-claude-harding-11272/text20109, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 9 December 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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