Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Isaachsen, Sir Oscar Lionel (1885–1951)

by Margaret L. Black

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

Oscar Lionel Isaachsen (1885-1951), by Blodwen Thomas , c1944

Oscar Lionel Isaachsen (1885-1951), by Blodwen Thomas , c1944

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B59479

Sir Oscar Lionel Isaachsen (1885-1951), banker, was born on 8 September 1885 in North Adelaide, eldest of three children of South Australian-born parents Oscar Henry Isaachsen, clerk, and his wife Lydia, née Smith. Young Oscar's paternal grandfather had emigrated from Norway in 1848. His father died in 1890 and his mother remarried. Educated at Sturt Street Public School, Pulteney Street School (dux 1900) and on a scholarship at Prince Alfred College, he competed in football and cricket, and always maintained an interest in sport. He passed first-year English at the University of Adelaide and was a pupil-teacher at Glenelg Grammar School.

In 1905 Isaachsen joined the Bank of Adelaide. His early postings were to McLaren Vale, Unley and Mannum where he met Ella Gertrude Schuetze (d.1976). They were married on 8 December 1910 in the Church of St John the Baptist, Murray Bridge. Manager at Blyth (from 1912) and at Minlaton (from 1915), he joined local sporting bodies and raced dogs with the Minlaton Coursing Club. His betting, and his preference for fishing to church-going, incurred the disapproval of the Methodist community of Yorke Peninsula, but the close friendships he made there and his love of fishing lasted for many years.

Port Pirie (1920-23) was Isaachsen's last country posting before he moved to Adelaide in 1924. He rose steadily through the bank's hierarchy to become general manager in 1939. Four years earlier he had visited England, Europe and the United States of America, pursuing his interest in international economics and monetary systems. Throughout 1939-45 he supported the war effort, gave particular attention to staff on active service and their families, and had the Union Jack raised over the bank each day. His four sons joined the Australian Imperial Force; Alan was killed in action in Papua in 1942 and Cedric was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

During the difficult postwar years of government controls Isaachsen established an important role for the bank in the development of South Australia's economy. He promoted diversification of the primary sector and the growth of manufacturing, and was one of the founders of the Industries Assistance Corporation of South Australia Ltd. His public addresses as president (1945-47) of the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce stressed the importance of private enterprise and the maintenance of individual effort and initiative, and he was alarmed that Australians could 'become serfs of a socialist and possibly communist State'. He defended the basic wage and advocated a stronger Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration to ensure industrial peace and goodwill, and to protect the rights of employer and employee. Chairman (1940-50) of the Associated Banks of South Australia, in 1947-49 he led the State's campaign against the nationalization of the banks.

Isaachsen's leadership and financial skills assisted the Lord Mayor's Food for Britain Appeal and the Cancer Appeal Fund, and he was a member (1941-48) of the board of governors of Pulteney Grammar School. Known to his many friends as 'Ike', he had a quick wit and keen sense of humour. He was solidly built, with strong features accentuated by early balding, and he dressed elegantly. Isaachsen especially enjoyed a day at the races, and had an eye for a pretty woman and a good horse. An evening of fine food, with a glass of wine followed by a cigar, was his chosen social occasion, often at the South Australian Hotel or the Adelaide Club, to which he belonged from 1936. He relaxed with a book or his caged parrots.

After retiring in June 1950, Isaachsen was immediately appointed to the board of the bank and elected chairman. His half-brother Alan Augustus West succeeded him as general manager. In the next ten months Isaachsen became a director of City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd, United Insurance Co. Ltd, Pascoe Industries Ltd and Adelaide Cement Co. Ltd. In 1951 he was knighted. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, he died suddenly of heart disease on 1 May that year in Sydney; after a service at St Columba's Anglican Church, Hawthorn, Adelaide, he was cremated. Sir Oscar's estate was sworn for probate at £26,696.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 22 Sept 1947, 22 Jan, 21 May 1951
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Jan, 4 Sept 1946, 6 Sept 1947, 1 Jan, 2 May 1951
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1947
  • Mail (Adelaide), 6 Jan 1951
  • R. A. Potter, 'With Faith and Courage': The Bank of Adelaide 1865-1965 (unpublished manuscript), and Bank of Adelaide, Annual Report, 1934-50, and staff records (held by ANZ Museum, Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret L. Black, 'Isaachsen, Sir Oscar Lionel (1885–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/isaachsen-sir-oscar-lionel-10593/text18819, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 13 December 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Oscar Lionel Isaachsen (1885-1951), by Blodwen Thomas , c1944

Oscar Lionel Isaachsen (1885-1951), by Blodwen Thomas , c1944

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B59479