Orphaned at the age of three, Oscar Wells was raised in the Platte County, Missouri, home of his aunt and uncle. He attended Bethany College in West Virginia, but at his uncle’s death in 1898 he was forced to return home to work as an assistant cashier at the Wells Banking Company. He progressed in the banking field through diligence and hard work so that by 1915 he was President of First National Bank of Birmingham, the Alabama’s largest bank. After serving as President for fifteen years, he resigned to become Chairman of the Board, a position in which he served until his death in 1953.
His dedication to his profession was matched by his commitment to the City of Birmingham and the welfare of its citizens. He served as President of the Jefferson County Courthouse Commission, which resulted in the construction of the current courthouse facing Linn Park. He chaired the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce committee that persuaded the University of Alabama to locate its Medical College in Birmingham. Wells was also the architect of the Department of Public Welfare and presided over it during the depression years of the 1930s. His service extended to many other organizations and programs, including an appointment by the President of the United States as financial advisor to the government of Cuba.
Oscar Wells married Helen Jacobs, a native of Wheeling, West Virginia, on October 11th, 1900. Although a member of several civic, social, and cultural organizations in Birmingham, Helen was not the public figure that her husband was. She was known as a gracious lady and charming hostess, and preferred to devote herself to supporting the interests of her husband. She was a discerning art critic, and together with Oscar accumulated an outstanding collection of etchings by noted artists, including Rembrandt, Durer, and Whistler. This collection of 53 etchings was left to the Birmingham Museum of Art through her estate.
In her will, Helen Wells specifically stated that only the building should be named in memory of her husband. By doing so, she anticipated that the Oscar Wells Memorial Building would inspire others to make gifts, so that in the course of time, Birmingham would have one of the greatest art museums of the nation.