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Queen's University


J. Allen Keast (November 15, 1922 – March 8, 2009)

Dr. Allen Keast passed away on Sunday, March 8, 2009, at about noon, in Kingston General Hospital where he had been admitted about three weeks earlier due to an infection in his heart. He was in his 87th year.
keast.jpgAllen was born November 15, 1922 in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He was an avid naturalist from his earliest boyhood - a passion that continued throughout his career. A family myth suggests that as soon as Allen opened his eyes, his old Scottish grandfather pushed his head up to a bird's nest so he could see into it. As a young boy, he fashioned his interest in natural history by finding nests and being fascinated by the details of colour and pattern of birds' eggs, finding it both a challenge and a thrill to find a nest and add to his egg collection. Even at this early age, his love of nature and his curiosity led him to many outdoor adventures on his own; he told with great pride and fondness how his grandmother allowed him, at age 8, to take a billy can and matches into the bush alone to make tea.

Following high school, Allen served in the Australian Army, being stationed for some 20 months in New Guinea, specifically in New Britain. By this time, his exploration of natural history and, in particular, of the world of birds had led him to develop his typing skills so that he could transcribe his nature notes. This in turn got him a typing job with the command in New Guinea, and provided him with the opportunity to explore the natural history and the avifauna in this tropical rainforest habitat that was of such great interest to him. Rumour has it that his fellow soldiers delighted in putting whatever specimens they could lay their hands on (snakes or otherwise) into his bed for him to find.

Upon completion of his military service, Allen attended the University of Sydney from 1946 to 1950 when he was awarded a B.Sc. with first class Honours. He continued his education at Sydney, while also holding a post as Assistant Curator of Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians at the Australian Museum, and earned an M.Sc. degree in 1952. He recounted with great delight and gratitude how, as an ornithologist at the Australian Museum, he had many opportunities to learn from some of the great amateur naturalists and ornithological masters of the time. Many of these colleagues were self-taught in this regard.

In 1953, Allen was awarded the Peter Brooks Saltonstall Scholarship at Harvard University for his PhD studies. At Harvard, Allen was the first graduate student supervised by one of the leading evolutionary biologists of our time, Professor Ernst Mayr. He also worked with the renowned comparative anatomist, Alfred Sherwood Romer. The Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard published Allen's PhD thesis, "Bird Speciation on the Australian Continent" in 1961.

After earning his PhD in 1955, Allen became Curator of Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians at the Australian Museum in Sydney, a position he held from 1955 to 1960. He then held a Visiting Researcher position at the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford University, as well
as an appointment in 1962 as Visiting Biologist in South African National Parks, Pretoria, South Africa.

Allen had a very strong interest in Australian natural history and he was also keenly interested in functional morphology and the role of evolution in shaping adaptations and hence community structure. He recognized that the fauna of the isolated island-continent of Australia was very different from that of the southern continents of Africa and South America, and this led Allen to produce major works on evolution in the Southern continents.

Allen joined the Biology Department at Queen's University at Kingston in 1962 as Assistant Professor, and quickly moved up through the ranks to Full Professor, a position that he held until his retirement in 1989.

Upon coming to Queen's, and finding himself in Canada, Allen was faced with a different biota in the cold-dominated, highly seasonal north temperate region, and he saw an opportunity to study biogeography and the forces molding community structure on a much smaller scale – that of the fish fauna in the isolated lakes of southern Ontario. He established a field program at the Queen’s University Biological Station at Lake Opinicon, and for more than 30 years examined comparative morphology and competition in those fish communities. This work extended to bird communities, and led to his edited volume "Biogeography and Ecology of Forest Bird Communities," published in 1990 and spanning a diversity of communities from around the globe. Allen's early interest in natural history and in birds led him to continued work on birds, and involvement with the ornithological communities in both Australia and North American throughout his career. Similarly, his interest in biogeography and the evolution of faunas led him to also continue work on large-scale biogeography and on vertebrate community structure. Hence, Allen never had to choose between these somewhat disparate but complimentary avenues of endeavour, and he managed to balance three major research thrusts, dealing with birds, with fish, and with large-scale biogeography.

Throughout his career, Allen was a strong proponent of field studies and field stations for both research and teaching, recognizing the value of exposing both undergraduate and graduate students to study organisms in their natural environment.  During Allen's time at Queen’s, he trained many undergraduates and at least 27 graduate students. He published at least 50 primary research papers, 60 book and conference chapters and 7 books on biogeography. His work served to draw the attention of the world’s ecologists and evolutionary biologists to the unique biogeography of Australia. In the Canadian lakes, he was a leader in demonstrating that the ecology of fishes changes dramatically as they grow. He recognized and took advantage of the unique opportunity that lakes provide – that of a suite of organisms locked in isolation in a common environment, often competing for common resources. Over the 25 years he studied fish communities in Eastern Ontario’s myriad lakes, especially at the Queen’s University Biological Station, he produced another 30 scientific papers in this field. 

One of Allen's great strengths was to synthesize. During his career, he edited or co-edited numerous volumes on evolution, biogeography and the relationships of biota, including several on birds. One of his more significant works was a 1980 volume on "Migrant Birds in the Neotropics" co-edited with Eugene Morton, that focused attention on issues of conservation for species that inhabit multiple regions throughout their life cycle, and highlighted a deficiency in our knowledge of Neotropical migrant birds on their wintering grounds. 

As Professor Emeritus following his retirement, Allen continued his involvement in field studies, and persisted with his passion for writing. He maintained an active interest in the department, and especially in the Queen's University Biological Station, right up until his death. Allen's generosity and passion for field studies and for the biology station led him to endow the J. Allen Keast Lake Opinicon Undergraduate Research Fellowship, in addition to establishing endowments for lectureships at both the University of Sydney and Queen's University.  In many ways, Allen Keast was larger than life - a generous, passionate, and dedicated biologist with a charm and personality that were both unique and memorable. He will be greatly missed by many friends and colleagues.  Allen was predeceased by a younger brother, John.  He is survived by his sister, Janet Baker, who with her husband, Sydney, lives near Seattle.

(09/03/11:  by Raleigh Robertson and Paul Martin) 

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000