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Oscar Adolph Oeser (1904–1983)

by Richard Trahair

This article was published:

Oscar Adolph Oeser (1904-1983), professor of psychology, was born on 21 February 1904 at Pretoria, South Africa, eldest of three children of German-born parents Alfred Edward Oeser, goldsmith, and his wife Caroline Louisa, neé Henning. Oscar studied physics and mathematics at the University of Pretoria (B.Sc., 1923) and taught at Voortrekker High School, Boksburg, near Johannesburg. Graduating M.Sc. (1925) from Rhodes University, Grahamstown, where for a short time he was a senior lecturer in physics, he gained a Ph.D. (1931) in experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge (Trinity College), having also completed a D.Phil. (1929) at the University of Marburg, Germany. While teaching at Dartington Hall in Devon, on 19 January 1932 he married Ingeborg Emmie Dicke at the register office, Totnes. This marriage was brief: at Cambridge he had met an Australian psychologist, Mary Drury Smith, née Clarke (d.1976), also a divorcee, whom he married at the register office, St Pancras, London on 27 January 1934.

In 1933 Oeser was appointed as a lecturer at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Leading a research team in a three-year survey of Dundee youth, he reported on their economic deprivation and the harshness of Scotland’s autocratic schools. He was commissioned in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in September 1940, and promoted to acting wing commander in 1943. Employed on intelligence duties at the code-breaking establishment Bletchley Park, Oeser led a section in Hut 3 where decoded enemy messages were analysed and dispatched to the government and military commands. His duties entailed visits to Allied forces in Europe. In 1945-46 he headed the German personnel research branch of the Control Commission, assessing the suitability of locals for leading roles in a reconstructed Germany.

In 1946 Oeser took up the foundation chair of psychology at the University of Melbourne. Under his leadership the department quickly became one of the largest in the British Commonwealth. Urbane, well mannered and always dressed immaculately, Oeser was a persuasive speaker, although not always successful in his battles against the well-established academic resistance to recognising the value of psychology as a science. His department attracted highly qualified staff, offering a range of research opportunities and teaching in both the arts and science faculties.

Oeser’s early research was diverse, centring on the constraints that social roles placed on individual expression and development. Departing from fashionable laboratory investigations, he built on his wartime experiences and training in physics by turning to theoretically informed empirical studies in applied social psychology. From 1948 to 1970 he and his colleagues, supported by government, industrial and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation funds, researched and published monographs on the social structure of urban and rural communities; conflict in factory work; group dynamics in classrooms; the limited roles available to farmers; and industrial relations at Broken Hill mines.

Convinced of the value of mathematics in many areas of psychology, Oeser developed a mathematical model for structural role theory. It was discussed in the fourth volume of the Handbook of Social Psychology and used by colleagues. Admired for his broad acceptance of psychological theories, Oeser often surprised those holding views opposed to his own with an informed and discerning appreciation of their positions. He kept abreast of developments in psychology in the United States of America, England, Europe and Asia during travels on Leverhulme, Carnegie and Rockefeller fellowships.

At the University of Melbourne, Oeser served as dean (1958-59) of the faculty of arts. From 1947 a member of the Social Science Research Committee (Council after 1953, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia after 1971), he served as its secretary in 1947, as chairman of the research committee in 1953-54, and as a member of its national advisory committee for UNESCO. He was a foundation member of the councils of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (1964) and the Australian Institute for Urban Studies (1967). A fellow of the British Psychological Society, he chaired (1955-56) its Australian branch and was elected an honorary fellow of the Australian Psychological Society.

Continuing his professional work after retiring from the university in 1969 as professor emeritus, Oeser headed Western Mining Corporation’s human relations unit (1970-73), designing new outback communities (on which he reported at a UNESCO seminar in 1973), and the human relations department at Melbourne’s Cairnmillar Institute (1974-76), which specialised in group training and psychological counselling.

Trimly built, with a keen, narrow gaze and neat moustache, Oeser appreciated fine art, literature and music; he spoke several languages, supported progressive education, read voraciously, and had a formidable and penetrating intellect. On 30 August 1979 he married Yvonne Raphael, a divorced company director, at the office of the government statist, Melbourne. Oscar Oeser died on 22 February 1983 in Melbourne, survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his second marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Hill, Bletchley Park People (2004)
  • Australian Psychologist, vol 20, no 3, 1985, p 345
  • Oeser papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Trahair, 'Oeser, Oscar Adolph (1904–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 February, 1904
Pretoria, South Africa


22 February, 1983 (aged 79)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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