6 incredible accountants who changed the world

We’ve all heard the old joke about accountants being boring. But while anyone who works in the financial sector knows that’s certainly not true, it can be harder to get the message across to friends and family.

So the next time someone teases you about your choice of career, have the last laugh by telling them how these audacious number crunchers – including an inspirational war hero, a game-changing feminist pioneer, and a crime-fighting investigator – made their mark on the world today.

Itzahk Stern: the compassionate bookkeeper who became a World War Two hero

You’ve probably heard of Schindler’s List.

But did you know the famous World War Two list of hundreds of Jews saved by Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler might not even exist if it weren’t for bookkeeper Itzahk Stern?

A friend of Schindler, Stern forged documents to classify otherwise ‘nonessential’ Jewish workers as experienced machinists and factory operators in order to protect them from execution.

He is even credited with typing the list of names known as Schindler’s list.

As such, his work helped save the lives of up to 1,200 Jews during the holocaust.

Frank J Wilson: the determined tax investigator who put Al Capone in jail

Tax investigator Frank J Wilson headed up the team of US Internal Revenue accountants who put infamous gangster and mob boss Al Capone behind bars.

From Chicago, Capone ran a huge organised crime organisation during the prohibition era.

Despite his numerous crimes, he eluded jail for many years because prosecutors could never pin anything on him.

But despite never filing a tax return, Capone was eventually brought to justice thanks to the hard work of Wilson and his team, who scoured more than two million financial records to find the evidence to end the gangland legend’s reign of terror.

Their achievement has been hailed as one of the earliest examples of forensic accounting.

Mary Addison Hamilton: the talented accountant who became a feminist icon

Known as Australia’s first lady of numbers, Mary Addison Hamilton was the first woman admitted membership of a recognised professional accounting body in the British Commonwealth.

Born in 1893, Hamilton passed the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce examinations in 1908 with the highest scores in Western Australia.

By 1916, she had become the country’s first female Certified Public Accountant – paving the way for other women to infiltrate the male-dominated professions and overcome the prejudices of the time.

Josiah Wedgwood: the forward-thinking businessman who invented cash accounting

Midlands-based china and pottery maker Wedgewood is still going strong more than 250 years since being founded in 1759.

One reason for its longevity is that founder Josiah Wedgwood invented what we now call cost accounting.

A potter by training, Wedgewood came up with the first reliable system to track bottom-line costs and profits in 1772.

When he tested his system out on his company, he uncovered an embezzlement scam being run by his head clerk.

By implementing weekly accounting strategies, he also managed to make economies of scale and survive numerous economic crises – meaning you can still buy a Wedgewood dinner service today.

Cynthia Cooper: the diligent auditor who blew the whistle on accounting fraud at WorldCom

American auditor Cynthia Cooper made global headlines when she blew the whistle on accounting fraud at telecommunications giant WorldCom in 2002.

As Vice President of Internal Audit at the company, Cooper and her team often worked at night and in secret to investigate and unearth the $3.8 billion fraud at the heart of WorldCom’s accounts.

Her bravery and honesty were rewarded when the influential Time magazine named her as one of its three 2002 “People of the year”.

Her book about the experience, “Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower”, was published in 2008.

John Pierpont Morgan: the skilful accountant who became an American financial services heavyweight

Now the figurehead of a global financial services firm, J.P. Morgan was born in Connecticut in 1837.

The son of a successful financier, he studied in Boston and Germany before starting his working life in 1857 as an accountant at a New York banking firm.

He went on to work for his father’s company, which changed its name to J.P. Morgan and Company in 1895.

He was heavily involved in the railroads and formed a syndicate that bailed out the American banking system during the 1890s depression.

In 1912, he cheated almost certain death by cancelling his booking on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, which famously sank after hitting an iceberg.

When he did die in 1913, the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading until midday on the day of his funeral out of respect for his life’s work.

How to follow in their footsteps…

The accountants described above all have a few things in common. These include:

  • Dedication to the cause – whether your aim is to catch a criminal or to keep your company afloat, hard work will help you achieve your goals
  • An ethical approach – from using your skills to help those less fortunate to exposing fraudulent activity, it’s vital to keep your integrity
  • An eye for detail – there’s no doubt the devil is in the detail when it comes to accounting, so it pays to be precise

Read more about inspiring accountants:

Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.

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