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Oppenheim, Gerald Frederick (1925–1995)

by Ian D. Rae

This article was published online in 2020

This is a shared entry with Margaret Rae Oppenheim

Gerald and Rae Oppenheim, c.1990

Gerald and Rae Oppenheim, c.1990

Ego Pharmaceuticals Pty Ltd

Gerald Frederick Oppenheim (1925–1995) and Margaret Rae Oppenheim (1926–2010), pharmaceutical manufacturers, were husband and wife. Gerald was born Gerd Friedo Oppenheim on 29 October 1925 at Dresden, Germany, only child of Erwin Oppenheim, dermatologist, and his wife, Margot Fanny, née Sternberg. The Oppenheims were non-practising Jews, but with worsening anti-Semitism in Germany they migrated to Australia in 1939, arriving in Melbourne in June. Erwin’s medical qualifications were not recognised in Australia, but he was allowed to practise as a dermatologist provided he did not prescribe medicines. Gerald was quick to Anglicise his name and then to improve his English while he attended state schools at Windsor and Toorak, and then Melbourne Boys’ High School (1941–44). He won a residential scholarship to Queen’s College, University of Melbourne (BSc, 1949), studying medicine for two years before switching to chemistry and biochemistry.

Margaret Rae Elliott was born on 12 August 1926 at Trentham, Victoria, younger child of Lewis Edward Elliott, general merchant, and his wife, Margaret May, née Beckwith. As her family moved around Victoria, Rae attended various state schools until she won a scholarship (1940–42) to Firbank Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Brighton, Melbourne. She then trained as a nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, before she and a friend voyaged to London in May 1950.

Oppenheim had met Elliott during a holiday at Mt Buffalo in 1947. After a year spent working for a pharmaceutical manufacturing company in Sydney, he followed her to London in January 1951. They were married on 30 June at the parish church of St John-at-Hampstead. He worked as a chemist for a food manufacturer, she as a nurse and then as an office worker. After a six-month tour of Europe, they returned to Melbourne in November 1952. Gerald failed to find suitable employment, so he and Rae began their own business, operating from their home in Elsternwick, making skincare products based on ideas suggested by his father. Adopting a name that recognised Erwin’s influence and included Gerald’s initials, they settled on Ego Laboratories.

Initially, the Oppenheims worked part time in the business while holding down jobs, Gerald as a teacher of science and geography at Malvern Central School, Rae as a home-visit nurse. In 1954 Gerald went full time into the business and moved it to nearby commercial premises, which were later expanded. Within a year the Ego name was registered as a trademark, sales-tax exemptions were obtained for raw materials, and products were registered with government agencies. Gerald researched and manufactured the products in small batches, assistants bottled and labelled them, and Rae delivered them to clients.

The firm’s initial product line included a shampoo, a hair tonic, and a successful pine-tar-based bath solution that became known as Pinetarsol. Erwin was their main customer until Rae began promoting the products to physicians and pharmacists, and thereafter the business grew steadily. Gerald carefully studied trade literature and observed market trends and opportunities for new products. By 1962 local and interstate sales had reached ₤18,726, yielding a profit of ₤2,624. The company incorporated that year as Ego Laboratories Pty Ltd and began to expand into overseas markets.

The Oppenheims were always sensitive to the needs of their customers. In 1975 they altered the composition of their bath oil, Egol, at the request of a dermatologist at the Queen Victoria Hospital, and named the new product Q. V. Bath Oil. The prefix was later adopted for other skincare products. In 1975 the company name changed to Ego Pharmaceuticals Pty Ltd and three years later the business moved to larger premises in Cheltenham that incorporated a research department. By 1980 annual sales had exceeded $1 million. Rae compiled a promotional booklet, Common Skin Conditions: Descriptions and Suggested Treatments (1982), which was reprinted many times and increased Ego’s profile among medical practitioners. In 1986 the company opened a new manufacturing plant at Braeside and won a Commonwealth of Australia small business award. After an eight-year research program, it launched its successful sunscreen range, SunSense, in 1988.

Gerald Oppenheim was a shy man, but ‘highly intelligent and with an unshakeable confidence in his ability to succeed’; Rae compensated for his shyness and provided valuable support ‘in the area of personnel relationships’ (Andrews 1996, 13). Gerald was a member of the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (fellow 1978), and the small business group of the Australian Institute of Management. He was also a supporter of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia and the Australian Dermatological Association (from 1967 the Australasian College of Dermatologists). With Rae he travelled regularly to attend dermatological conferences and to visit the company’s overseas distributors, but it was not until 1986 that they included Dresden in their itinerary. Members of Gerald’s family had emigrated or had died in the Holocaust during World War II, so, apart from meeting with his childhood nanny, they found their visit to the East German city, still not recovered from the war, a depressing experience.

During the 1980s Gerald and Rae gradually stepped back from the company they had created. Their younger son Alan had studied chemistry and computer science at Monash University and joined Ego in 1981 as scientific director. He was later joined by his wife Jane, who had completed a doctorate in biochemistry at Monash and postdoctoral studies at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. They took over management of the business when Gerald and Rae retired in 1993. Gerald began writing an autobiography and company history, which was later completed by Rae. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993, he died of bowel cancer on 1 December 1995 at Malvern and was cremated. At the time of his death Ego Pharmaceuticals employed eighty people, manufactured forty-five products, exported to fourteen countries, and remained a family-owned company. Survived by her two sons, Rae died on 22 October 2010 at Brighton and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Andrews, Bruce. ‘Skin-Care Chemist Beat Multinationals.’ Australian, 3 January 1996, 13
  • Ego: The First Fifty Years. Videorecording. Braeside, Vic.: Ego Pharmaceuticals, 2003
  • Oppenheim, Alan. Personal communication
  • Oppenheim, Gerald, with Rae Oppenheim. Strong Ego and Thick Skin. Braeside, Vic.: Ego Pharmaceuticals, 2003
  • Strasser, P. H. A. ‘Gerald Frederick Oppenheim, 29 October 1925 — 1 December 1995.’ Chemistry in Australia, February 1996, 96 Jones, Alan J. ‘Industry Profile: Ego Pharmaceuticals Pty Ltd.’ Chemistry in Australia, December 2006, 14–16

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ian D. Rae, 'Oppenheim, Gerald Frederick (1925–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/oppenheim-gerald-frederick-30349/text37646, published online 2020, accessed online 29 November 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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