Wolfensohn, James David

views updated


WOLFENSOHN, JAMES DAVID (1933– ), international peace envoy, Olympian, philanthropist, investment banker and president of the World Bank. Wolfensohn was born in Sydney, Australia, and enrolled at age 16 at Sydney University, where he discovered a latent talent for fencing. Five years later, Wolfensohn fenced for Australia in the 1956 Olympics. That same year he completed his law degree and the following year, was accepted to do an M.B.A. at Harvard.

After a few years, he returned to Australia where his career as an international investment banker took seed. Over the years he held several executive-level positions in firms in Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom. In his late forties, he opened his own boutique investment bank.

Passionate about the performing arts, he was always closely involved in a range of cultural activities. As chairman of the board of Carnegie Hall, he was a driving force behind its restoration.

When he was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, d.c., the center was economically and philosophically troubled. He changed its focus, concentrating on education and increasing performance and outreach initiatives. For his contribution to the arts, Wolfensohn received numerous awards, including a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

As a committed philanthropist, he was devoted to humanitarian causes. He was president of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies and personally financed AIDS initiatives for the disabled. Widely recognized for his voluntary work, he was decorated by the governments of Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Georgia, Morocco, Norway, Peru, Pakistan, and Russia.

A proud Jew, Wolfensohn chaired the Jerusalem Foundation, was a director of the Jerusalem Music Center and a member of the advisory committee of Yad Hanadiv. He won the American Jewish Committee Herbert H. Lehman, Human Relations Award, and was a trustee of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue.

Wolfensohn received nine honorary doctorates, served as chairman of the board of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. He was a member of both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Century Association of New York and an honorary trustee of the Brookings Institution.

During his presidency of the World Bank between 1995 and 2005, Wolfensohn made poverty reduction the raison d'etre of the Bank and changed its face by describing the challenge of development in terms of people not numbers.

As his term at the bank was ending, in 2005 the Quartet of powers – the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union, which had joined together to help to attain peace in the longstanding Arab/Israeli conflict – appointed Wolfensohn as their special envoy for peace.

[Jill Margo (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Wolfensohn, James David

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article