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Oscar Adolf Mendelsohn (1896–1978)

by Ray Marginson

This article was published:

Oscar Adolf Mendelsohn (1896-1978), polymath, bon vivant and public analyst, was born on 12 July 1896 at Nanango, Queensland, sixth child of Saul Mendelsohn, a storekeeper from Berlin, and his Brisbane-born wife Abigail, née Rosensweig. Educated at All Saints Grammar School, Melbourne, and at Petersham Superior Public School, Sydney, Oscar studied chemistry at Sydney Technical College where he was influenced by (Sir) Ian Clunies Ross. He found work as a shift-chemist with G. & C. Hoskins Ltd, Lithgow, and then as a teacher at All Saints College, Bathurst. On 29 December 1915 he enlisted as a gunner in the Australian Imperial Force. Based in England (from September 1916), he was found to be medically unfit for general service. Mendelsohn was discharged from the army on 27 May 1917 to take up an appointment as chemist in the Chief Postal Censor's Department, London. In December he returned to Australia and obtained a post at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, as an assistant-censor specializing in the chemistry of espionage.

At St Andrew's Anglican Church, Summer Hill, Sydney, on 14 April 1916 Mendelsohn had married 18-year-old Merle Winifred Todd; they were to be divorced in 1932. In 1919 he enrolled at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1923); there, he was impressed by Professor W. A. Osborne, 'the first true food scientist I met'. On graduating, he borrowed money to set up an analytical laboratory; over the next decade he developed an unrivalled knowledge of the food industry and of alcoholic beverages. O. A. Mendelsohn & Co., public analysts, gradually expanded from Flinders Street, Melbourne, to Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Mendelsohn represented the Commonwealth government at the World Dairy Congress in London (1928) and undertook a mission abroad for the Victorian government to investigate the potato industry (1929). He travelled extensively between the wars, particularly to the United States of America. In 1929 and at a by-election in the following year he stood unsuccessfully as a Nationalist candidate for the seat of Caulfield in the Legislative Assembly. On 7 December 1939 he married Edna Millward Smale at the Church of Christ, Swanston Street, Melbourne; she was aged 23.

During World War II Mendelsohn served (1942-45) in the Royal Australian Air Force; he rose to acting squadron leader as a staff officer and chemical adviser at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne. From 1947 to 1959 he ran a grazing property at Lara, near Geelong, previously owned by the Armytage family. In his later years Mendelsohn was professionally known for his work in forensic chemistry, and as an expert graphologist and consultant on disputed documents. His monograph, Suspected Documents and Outrageous Liars (Melbourne, 1976), was crammed with anecdotes of human frailty.

Outside his professional field, Mendelsohn had wide interests. He gained a national reputation for promoting civilized attitudes to eating and drinking, and founded the long-running Fellowship of Trenchermen. Among his many works were The Earnest Drinker (London, 1950), Drinking with Pepys (London, 1963), The Dictionary of Drinkers and Drinking (London, 1965) and From Cellar and Kitchen (Melbourne, 1968). One curious work included 1187 synonyms for the adjective 'drunk'. He possessed an excellent palate for wine, detested 'Black Velvet' (stout and champagne) and favoured Calvados.

Under the name of Oscar 'Milsen', Mendelsohn composed and published songs and other musical pieces. He conducted the Royal Australian Air Force choir (1943-46), and founded and conducted the Pentridge gaol choir (1961-64) and the South Melbourne Choral Society. His book, A Waltz with Matilda (Melbourne, 1966), advanced the now discounted theory that Australia's alternative anthem was written not by A. B. Paterson but by Harry Nathan, organist at the Anglican Cathedral, Townsville, Queensland. An art collector and friend of artists such as Max Meldrum and Percy Leason, Mendelsohn donated many works to the National Gallery of Victoria.

As State president (1964-71) of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Mendelsohn presided over an increase in membership from fifty to five hundred, and played a major part in the establishment of a range of literary prizes, including the Barbara Ramsden and the Victorian short story awards. He was an inveterate contributor to reviews and newspapers, and a familiar voice on Australian Broadcasting Commission programmes. Described as a man who flourished on controversy and enjoyed being a lone voice, he delighted in public speaking and was good at it. As honorary vice-president of the Humanist Society, he attacked—through the Rationalist—efforts to introduce religion in state schools. From World War II he was an active member of the Australian Labor Party.

Oscar Mendelsohn was foundation president of the Australian Association of Consulting Chemists, a founding member (fellow 1962) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, a councillor of the Australian Consumers' Association and the initiator of the Australian Pure Food Society. In 1975 he was appointed O.B.E. Survived by his wife, their son and two daughters, and by the two sons of his first marriage, he died on 5 January 1978 at Heidelberg and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. D. Magoffin, Fair Dinkum Matilda (Charters Towers, Qld, 1973)
  • Epicurean, June 1968, p 60, Feb-Mar 1975, p 57
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 35, no 2, 1976, p 211
  • Australian Author, 10, no 2, Apr 1978, p 39
  • Chemistry in Australia, 45, no 7, July 1978, p 243
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 Nov 1959, 19 Jan 1967, 11 Jan 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 12 Sept 1966, 1 Jan 1975, 3 Aug 1976
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Jan 1978
  • Mendelsohn papers, MS 1857 (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ray Marginson, 'Mendelsohn, Oscar Adolf (1896–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Milsen, Oscar

12 July, 1896
Nanango, Queensland, Australia


5 January, 1978 (aged 81)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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