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Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs (1855–1948)

He was, perhaps, the greatest Australian of our time, or any previous time. His life was in large part dedicated to the service of the public and his country.

Looking back over the incidents of his life, his career appears to have been almost an effortless journey from the position of assistant teacher in a country school to that of Australia's first native-born Governor-General.

There were no rough edges to his career. There is no record that he ever played truant from school; he had a brilliant University career; he married the right woman; had a distinguished legal career; and attained to the highest position that his country had to offer him.

The most respected of all Australians, he was never a "national hero." Rather than being an inspiration, the life story of Sir Isaac Isaacs is more likely to fill the average person with a feeling of frustration, for he did everything so easily and so well.

He learned to speak Chinese, as well as Italian, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Hebrew, and in middle-age he settled down to the task of mastering Russian.

As a young man he learned shorthand by "swopping" tuition with another student who wanted to learn French. Eventually he could write shorthand at the rate of 180 words a minute for five minutes at a stretch.

At the age of 13 he gave tuition in educational subjects to other children at 10/ a week, and was soon self-supporting.

Despite these youthful excursions into the byways of adventure, Sir Isaac Isaacs believed that there was no age more dangerous than old age. He said that on his 90th birthday.

He always said he owed his early learning and cultural background to his mother. Until she died in 1912 he communicated with her daily, no matter where he was.

The future Governor-General was born in Elizabeth st, Melbourne, in 1855, the son of a poor Jewish tailor. At three he went to a school in Lonsdale st.

Later, when times were bad, the family moved to Beechworth, travelling by coach. In the North-East he was educated at Yackandandah State school and Beechworth Grammar School.

At 15 he joined the Education Department, and for the first four years was an assistant teacher in Victorian State schools. Scholarships provided the means for his secondary and university education.

Having taken his LLB degree and been admitted to the Bar in 1880, Mr Isaac Isaacs' progress was meteoric, his greatest successes being in the field of Constitutional law. Within a few years he was recognised as one of the outstanding Constitutional authorities in Australia.

In 1892 he was asked to enter politics, and that year was elected to the Legislative Assembly as member for Bogong. Nine years later he left State politics to take his place in the first Federal Parliament.

Previously, in 1897, he had been elected as a member of the convention which brought about Federation, and took a leading part in the drafting of Australia's Constitution. He was appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1899.

He was Attorney-General m the Deakin Ministry when he retired from Federal politics in 1906 to fill a vacancy on the Bench of the still young High Court of Australia.

During his years at the Bar he was several times sent to England to appear before the Privy Council.

Public recognition of his distinguished services as judge was offered 16 years later, when he was created a Privy Councillor, with a special summons to Buckingham Palace to receive his appointment. He was chosen as one of the Australian members of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Sir Isaac Isaacs was knighted in 1928 for meritorious services to the nation, and on the retirement of Sir Adrian Knox in 1930, he was elevated to the position of Chief Justice of the High Court.

The following year, on the recommendation of the Scullin government, he was appointed Governor-General.

There were some protests, for it was felt that the appointment of an Australian would weaken the link with the Crown. Sir Isaac Isaacs, however, by his wisdom and dignity, adorned the office and when he retired in 1935 he retired as one of the most successful and popular Governor-Generals Australia has had.

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'Isaacs, Sir Isaac Alfred (1855–1948)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Isaac Isaacs, 1947

Isaac Isaacs, 1947

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L8923

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Abrahams, Isaac Alfred

6 August, 1855
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


11 February, 1948 (aged 92)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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