Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Schmalzbach, Oscar Rivers (1912–1996)

by Michael Kirby

This article was published online in 2020

Oscar Rivers Schmalzbach (1912–1996), psychiatrist and forensic scientist, was born on 17 April 1912 in Lvov (Lviv), Austro-Hungarian Empire (later Poland and subsequently Ukraine), youngest of three children of Ari Schmalzbach, antique dealer, and his wife. Educated at a state high school, where he was an excellent student, Oscar attended the University of Lvov (MD, 1937). After postgraduate study in neurology and psychiatry at the University of Warsaw, he worked as a research assistant before starting to practise as a psychiatrist. In the 1930s he married and was divorced, but nothing is known of that union and there was no issue. Having run a hospital for Jewish patients after Germany occupied eastern Poland during World War II, in 1942 he escaped through Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Schmalzbach began work with the Red Cross, and in 1944 or 1945 went, through Turkey, to Palestine. There he met Irene Weinreb, whom he married in Italy in 1948. The couple lived briefly in Zurich, Switzerland, where he worked at the Institute of Brain Anatomy, before moving to England. He was appointed research fellow in brain physiology at Middlesex Hospital, London, and he undertook postgraduate work at Maudsley Hospital and the National Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London. In 1949 he and his wife migrated to Australia.

Following his arrival in Sydney, Schmalzbach was appointed a medical officer (later senior medical officer) at Callan Park Mental Hospital, and then acting deputy superintendent at Callan Park and Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic. He also served as a researcher in brain anatomy at the University of Sydney, and as an honorary psychiatrist at several New South Wales hospitals, and began private practice in Macquarie Street. In 1961 he and his wife were naturalised. Their marriage was later dissolved.

By the 1960s Schmalzbach began appearing regularly as an expert witness in leading criminal trials where the mental capacities of the accused persons were in contest. His blunt testimony was specially valued by the Crown. In 1963 the New South Wales Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice appointed him consultant psychiatrist, responsible for assessing all those accused of murder or attempted murder; he would hold that position for two decades. His book Profiles in Murder (1971) recorded some of his court cases. He was also a psychiatric referee for the Workers’ Compensation Commission of New South Wales. Among his attainments he listed fellowship of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Appointed OBE in 1979, he was awarded the officer’s cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1983.

Through his court appearances, Schmalzbach made the acquaintance of judges, lawyers, and medical and other experts in criminal cases. He cultivated such acquaintances, especially with high public office-holders. In 1967, utilising these connections, he was the driving force in founding the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences. As the initial secretary-general (1967–76, 1978–84, 1985–91), he organised the appointment of vice-regal patrons and patrons-in-chief, a move that gave rise to vice-regal dinners of the academy, which he arranged as grand affairs at leading Sydney hotels. He had hit upon a winning formula. The presence of vice-regal and senior judicial office-holders helped attract leaders of the medical and legal professions and later their spouses. Intellectual content was added to these events by a varied array of national and overseas experts. Scientific sessions were followed by dinner, at which flowery praise was showered on the then-current president by Schmalzbach in lengthy remarks delivered partly in Latin, which he had learned in Poland. While the intellectual discourse was serious, the dinners were sometimes chaotic as the successive presidents—among them Sir Harry Gibbs and Gordon Samuels—struggled to keep the secretary-general, and the event, under control. Papers for the scientific sessions and international symposia were reported in the academy’s journal, the Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences. This too Schmalzbach founded, in 1968, and he was soon serving as its editor (1971–92).

Schmalzbach’s professional appointments declined by the 1980s, and he ceased to practise in the 1990s. The academy became his life. Meetings of its council took place in his professional rooms in Sydney amidst disorder that was only tolerated because of his demonstrated capacity to secure experts of distinction for the meetings and the journal. He twice held the position of president of the academy (1976–78, 1984–87). This became a position he was reluctant to surrender. When he ceased as secretary-general and editor, he was manoeuvred with skill into accepting, reluctantly, the new position of ‘founder.’ The academy and its journal survived.

Proud of his Jewish heritage, Schmalzbach belonged to the Sydney lodge of B’nai B’rith and to the Great Synagogue. He died on 26 December 1996 at Hunters Hill, and was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery; his son, Leslie, who had also become a medical practitioner, survived him. Before his final decline, he displayed restless energy, foresight about the need for a broad approach to forensic sciences, and disorder in appearance and sometimes in behaviour. Yet he won the loyalty of important people whom he bossed around, but with purpose and occasional charm. The academy after him was very different. Its continuance is his legacy. A portrait by Reg Campbell (1959) is in the possession of his son. Research fellowships for work advancing the academy’s aims are offered by its Oscar Rivers Schmalzbach Foundation.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Brasch, R. Australian Jews of Today and the Part They Have Played. Stanmore, NSW, and North Melbourne, Vic.: Cassell Australia, 1977
  • Kirby, Michael. ‘Dr Oscar Schmalzbach OBE.’ Australian Law Journal 71 (1997): 568
  • Kirby, Michael. ‘Forensic Sciences at 50: Past, Present and Future?’ Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 50, no. 6 (2018): 596–606
  • Kirby, Michael. ‘Memories of Oscar Schmalzbach.’ Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences. 28, no. 2 (July-December 1996): 53–55
  • Kirby, Michael D. ‘Oscar Schmalzbach.’ Medical Journal of Australia. 167, no. 4 (18 August 1997): 213
  • Sainsbury, Maurice J. ‘Recollections on the Formation of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences on the 40th Anniversary of the Journal.’ Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 40, no. 2 (December 2008): 97–98
  • Schmalzbach, Les. ‘“Everyone Knows Oscar.”’ Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 28, no. 2 (July-December 1996): 46–48
  • Schmalzbach, Leslie. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael Kirby, 'Schmalzbach, Oscar Rivers (1912–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/schmalzbach-oscar-rivers-27915/text35665, published online 2020, accessed online 22 October 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021