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Accountants who changed the world

Accountants who changed the worldIt’s ok, we understand, just take a deep breath and a moment to collect yourself. It’s true. There are accountants who have changed the world.

And while we are playing with the antique notions of accountancy being the dusty preserve of visor-ed men in brown offices surrounded by endless accounting books, this is also an opportunity to learn something new about the most notable moments in this very old profession. Behind the scenes of some of the most famous events and movements in history you’ll find accountants pushing the boundaries and building the foundations of how we deal with our money, and consequently altering our lives in wider society.   

Frank J. Wilson

Chicago gangster Al Capone is famous the world over for running organised crime in America during the prohibition era. He never had any bank accounts, nor did he ever file one tax return, yet he managed to generate up to $100M of income, secretly. It was a brave team of Internal Revenue accountants, headed by a Frank J. Wilson that scoured more than two million financial records to finally bring down Capone and put him in prison. Not bad for a desk-job well done, and the setting of precedent for the significance of forensic accounting today.

Mary Addison Hamilton

Mary Addison Hamilton, along with Bessie Rischbieth and Mary Bennet, might have done more for the feminist movement in Australia during the early 20th century than any other women at the time. Leading by example, Hamilton exceeded academic expectations to pass the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce examinations with the highest scores in Western Australia. She then took night classes to eventually become the country’s first female Certified Public Accountant. In a field totally dominated by men, she changed the tide and provided real inspiration for women everywhere to exceed the prejudices of the time.

Josiah Wedgwood

Josiah Wedgwood is the father of cost accounting, having devised the first reliable system to track bottom-line costs and profits way back in 1772. During an economic downturn, Wedgwood tested his system on his own pottery firm. It was so successful that it uncovered an embezzlement scam being run by his head clerk. Wedgwood’s pottery firm survived the economic crisis of the time, and is still present today supplying millions of outlets around the world with iconic ceramics and crystal-ware. The power of good accounting for the longevity of business is undeniable.

John Pierpont Morgan

The humble accountant J.P. Morgan started life at a New York banking firm in 1857. From then, the irrevocable influence of his brilliance with money bailed out the American banking system in the 1890’s, stabilised the American market during the panic of 1907, and has since survived and evolved into today’s global market leading financial services firm, still carrying his name. Currently, the firm gives $200M annually to non-profit organisations for causes and efforts to make the world a better place for everyone. If J.P. Morgan thought he’d changed the world during his lifetime, he might never have imagined the impact his firm was going to have after his death. On the day of J.P. Morgan’s funeral in 1913, the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading until midday. It was out of respect for a legendary accountant.

Luca Pacioli and Amatino Manucci

Amatino Manucci is the man who first documented the practice of double-entry bookkeeping around the year 1300. As with a lot of matters of genius, it was not capitalised upon until around 200 years later when Luca Paciola popularised the system in his book Summa de arithmetica, geometria. Proportioni et proportionalita. Pacioli’s book also detailed a ledger balancing process and a system for discouraging fraud through independent ledger reviews. 500 years later, in 1994, his head was presented on an Italian stamp. Recognition like that does not happen for superficial achievements, proving the sheer impact on life an accountant can have.

While these names might easily be eclipsed by today’s multitudes of celebrities and other outwardly legendary humans throughout history, it is in no doubt that it’s also silent partners who shape our world, and a great number of them are accountants.

If you want to see where accountancy can take you, get started on an ACCA course, CIMA qualification, or take the AAT qualification – the UK’s leading entry-level vocational diploma in accounting. You can’t be a legendary accountant, until you are an accountant.