Wolfson, Sir Isaac

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WOLFSON, SIR ISAAC (1897–1991), British financier and philanthropist. Wolfson was born and grew up in a poor district of Glasgow, the son of a picture frame maker who had migrated from Bialystok. After leaving school at the age of 14, Wolfson worked for his father as a traveling salesman. He moved to London in 1922 and went into business, joining the Great Universal Stores a decade later and becoming its chairman in 1946. He made the GUS Group one of the world's foremost industrial and commercial empires. He built up a chain of nearly 3,000 retail stores, dealing in furniture and soft goods, developed the largest mail order business in Britain, and controlled a road transport organization in Britain second only to the nationalized British Road Services. His interests in Britain and the U.S. extended to banking, insurance, building, real estate, and shipping.

After World War ii Wolfson began to devote himself more intensively to Jewish and general philanthropy. In 1955 he formed the Wolfson Foundation which by 1970 had distributed over £20,000,000 (approximately $56,000,000) in charitable contributions to numerous establishments in Britain and the British Commonwealth for the advancement of health, education, the liberal arts, science and engineering, youth and student welfare, and various other humanitarian and academic purposes. He became associated with business undertakings in Israel and used the profits to further his philanthropic interests there. The Edith and Isaac Wolfson Trust provided funds for building the Supreme Rabbinical Center in Jerusalem (Hechal Shlomo, named for his father), 50 synagogues throughout the country, and the Kiryat Wolfson housing projects for new immigrants in Jerusalem and Acre, which included schools and synagogues. He contributed to the development program of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion, and especially the Weizmann Institute of Science. Wolfson was made a baronet in 1962 in recognition of his public services. In 1963 he became the only non-scientist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He founded Wolfson College at Oxford with a contribution of £2,000,000, which was matched by a similar endowment by the Ford Foundation, and in 1977 also founded Wolfson College, Cambridge. He was appeal chairman of the Joint Palestine Appeal of Great Britain and Ireland from 1950 onward, and president of the *United Synagogue. By the time of his death he had given away £130 million to various philanthropic causes and was probably the greatest British philanthropist of his time. His son baron leonard wolfson (1927– ) succeeded him as chairman of gus and was president of the Jewish Welfare Board from 1972 to 1982. Also a great philanthropist, he was given a life peerage in 1985.


S.J. Goldsmith, Twenty 20th Century Jews (1962), 129–35. add. bibliography: odnb online.

[Julian Louis Meltzer]