The End of the Disinterested Profession: American Public Accountancy 1927-1962



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This study traces the development of the American public accounting profession from 1927 to 1962. Over the course of these thirty-five years, accounting evolved from an insular, divided group whose professional competence and independence was doubted, even by its own members, to one that spoke with one united national voice, proudly asserted its ability to take on additional responsibilities, and had cemented an essential place in the American economy. The study makes use of archival sources, included large portions of the papers of George O. May, the doyen of the old Wall Street elite whose correspondence into the 1950's reflects the profession's development, and provides the first study of the accounting profession's response to the union corruption scandals. I look at the major events that caused this evolution, including the writings of William Z. Ripley, the New Deal and the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the McKesson-Robbins scandal, the Second World War, the postwar economic expansion, and the union corruption scandals. I show how these events forced the profession to accept the responsibilities American society demanded of it, and how the leadership of the profession passed from a Wall Street-centered elite that styled itself after a British ideal of the professional as a disinterested, independent gentleman who did not promote himself and whose integrity and expertise did not require rigid rules of conduct, to a new generation that embraced a more modern ideal of the professional, one who followed strict rules of conduct and educational requirements, and who embraced a broader vision of public accountancy's responsibilities to American society, as evidenced by the prominent public role the American Institute of CPA's took when Congress looked to impose stricter regulations on trade unions and pensions in the wake of the union corruption scandals of the late 1950's. Finally, I evaluate the consequences of this evolution, consequences that I believe persisted into the twenty-first century with the debate over non-audit services in the wake of the Enron scandal.