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Keith McRae Archer (1905–1999)

by Tim Rowse

This article was published online in 2023

Keith McRae Archer (1905–1999), public servant and statistician, was born on 18 October 1905 at Mowbray, Tasmania, elder son of Tasmanian-born Harry McRae Archer, horse-trainer, and his Victorian-born wife Evelyn Isabel, née Heales. When Keith was two, his father died from injuries sustained in a riding accident and his mother went to Victoria to find work, so he and his brother, Cecil, were brought up by relatives at Kimberley, Tasmania, on a mixed dairy farm. After primary school, through a bursary, he attended Launceston Church Grammar School (1919–20) before completing scholarship-funded part-time study at the University of Tasmania (DipCom, 1924). As a youth, he played football, cricket, and tennis (with the future actor Errol Flynn as a partner).

In 1923 Archer abandoned a banking career and joined the office of the Tasmanian government statistician, Lyndhurst Giblin, who valued his familiarity with rural industries. Archer found that he was the only person in a small, all-male team who had learned to type. The office became part of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in 1924 and he transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service. Interstate trade, agricultural and pastoral production, vital statistics, the statistics of friendly societies, and finance were the office’s main concerns. On 14 December 1932 he married Hobart-born Margaret Grace Tilley Stops at St David’s Cathedral, Hobart, and in April 1933 was transferred to Canberra to work in the bureau’s head office as tabulating superintendent on the 1933 census. In 1938 he assumed responsibility for the bureau’s finance section and the following year spent eight months in Sydney compiling a national service register (of manpower and wealth), in anticipation of war in Europe. Back in Canberra in 1940, he was promoted and subsequently oversaw the operational logistics of mechanical tabulation. When (Sir) Stanley Carver was appointed Commonwealth statistician in 1940, Archer became one of his two personal assistants and occasionally acted as his delegate on committees and at conferences.

Sent for professional development, in 1947 Archer acted as Australian delegate to the International Labour Office conference at Montreal, Canada. This trip gave him insight into the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, the best-integrated system of statistics in the world, he later recalled. From Canada, he continued to Washington to learn from the United States of America’s government’s statistical practices. In 1949 he was offered an attractive position in the Commonwealth Department of Health. After tough negotiations with (Sir) Roland Wilson, who did not want the bureau to lose him, he was promoted to assistant statistician (administrative). He was subsequently promoted to first assistant statistician in 1954 and then in 1958 to deputy commonwealth statistician.

From these positions, under Carver’s leadership, Archer was involved in several visionary projects to improve the bureau. One was a cadetship scheme beginning in 1959, in which the bureau paid the fees and living expenses of selected undergraduates at the Australian National University; it was eventually broadened to include students at other Australian universities. This led to a flow of highly qualified graduates to the bureau, many of whom eventually moved on to other government agencies. Another project was the integration of the State statistical services (other than Tasmania) into the Commonwealth bureau, a process (1958–62) that required each State division to recruit more staff. A third was computerisation. In 1962 he travelled to Britain to recruit thirty programmers for the Commonwealth Public Service. The following year the bureau purchased a computer to phase out punch-card processing, becoming the third Commonwealth agency, behind the Weapons Research Establishment and the Department of Defence, to acquire one.

When Carver retired, Archer succeeded him as Commonwealth statistician (1962–70). During that period the bureau integrated the economic censuses of business (1968–69), contributing to more accurate national accounts. Under his leadership, Australian statistics garnered greater international recognition. In 1967 he chaired the organising committee for the thirty-sixth session of the International Statistical Institute, held for the first time in Australia. Later that year he was elected chairman of the eighth conference of Asian Statisticians and in 1968 was appointed chairman of the United Nations Statistical Commission. He was appointed OBE in 1965 and was made a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1969.

On Christmas Day 1969 Archer suffered a serious stroke that paralysed one side of his body, which he later attributed to a particularly stressful argument about the wording of the 1971 census form. Obliged to retire, in 1971 he was elevated to CBE and made a fellow of the Australian Computer Society. His characteristic inner drive and determination, however, were channelled by a skilled doctor and physiotherapist to see him recover fully to take on new responsibilities beyond government service. He became director of the Australian Association of Permanent Building Societies (1970–75), associate director, Australian Association of Building Societies (1975–79), and honorary secretary of the Australian Capital Territory Association of Permanent Building Societies (1979–84). He represented Australia at the World Congress of International Building Societies in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1974 and in San Francisco, United States, in 1977.

In retirement, Archer lived a quiet life; he enjoyed developing gardens in which both flowers and vegetables flourished. Throughout his life he was community-minded, having joined Rotary, and he served as a member of the Canberra Church of England Girls’ Grammar School board and as churchwarden at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Manuka. He ‘had enormous warmth and feeling for people, with a capacity to inspire great enthusiasm among Bureau staff’ and possessed a genuine ‘interest in the activities of the families of staff members even after [his] retirement’ (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000). His sense of humour was reflected in his practice of phoning the bureau (after 1974, the Australian Bureau of Statistics) on his birthday to find out his current life expectancy. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1989), he died on 1 April 1999 in Canberra, survived by his son and daughter.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Archer, Keith McRae. Interview by Cameron Hazlehurst and Colin Forster, November 1983. Transcript. ORAL TRC 1583. National Library of Australia
  • Archer, Keith McRae. Interview by Mel Pratt, 6 April 1971. ORAL TRC 121/38. Mel Pratt collection. National Library of Australia
  • Archer, Margaret. Interview by the author, 15 July 2022. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Yearbook Australia 2000. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000
  • Cornwell, Greg. ‘Service to Statistics and Canberra.’ Canberra Times, 13 April 1999, 11
  • Trewin, Dennis. Personal communication (email)
  • Who’s Who in Australia: 1998. Melbourne: Information Australia Group, 1998

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Tim Rowse, 'Archer, Keith McRae (1905–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/archer-keith-mcrae-32760/text40732, published online 2023, accessed online 24 May 2024.

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