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Zelman Cowen

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Title: Zelman Cowen  
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Zelman Cowen

The Right Honourable
Sir Zelman Cowen
Provost of Oriel College, Oxford
In office
Preceded by Michael Swann, Baron Swan
Succeeded by Ernest Nicholson
19th Governor-General of Australia
In office
8 December 1977 – 29 July 1982
Monarch Elizabeth II
Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser
Preceded by Sir John Kerr
Succeeded by Sir Ninian Stephen
Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland
In office
Preceded by Sir Fred Schonell
Succeeded by Brian Wilson
Vice Chancellor of the University of New England
In office
Preceded by Sir Robert Madgwick
Succeeded by Alec Lazenby
Personal details
Born (1919-10-07)7 October 1919
Melbourne, Victoria
Died 8 December 2011(2011-12-08) (aged 92)
Toorak, Victoria
Spouse(s) Lady Cowen (née Anna Wittner)
Children 4
Profession Legal professor
Religion Judaism[1]

Sir Zelman Cowen, GCMG, GCVOQC (7 October 1919 – 8 December 2011) was an Australian legal scholar and academic administrator. He was the 19th Governor-General of Australia.


  • Early life 1
  • Educational career 2
  • Governor-General 3
  • Post vice-regal career 4
  • Death 5
  • Honours 6
  • Further reading 7
  • References 8
  • Sources 9

Early life

Cowen was born in Melbourne in 1919 to a Jewish family.[1] He was educated at St Kilda Park state school, Scotch College and the University of Melbourne. He served in the Royal Australian Navy during World War II and then went as a Rhodes Scholar to New College, Oxford, where he completed a Bachelor of Civil Law degree and jointly won the Vinerian Scholarship. From 1947 to 1950 he was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford,[2] and was also a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Allied-occupied Germany.[3]

Educational career

In 1951 Cowen returned to Australia and became Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Melbourne, a post he held until 1966 where he appointed, and worked with Francis Patrick Donovan. During these years he was frequently a visiting professor at American universities, including the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and the University of Washington. He also advised the British Colonial Office on constitutional matters and advised the governments of Ghana and Hong Kong on legal issues. Among many other works, he published a biography of Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian-born and first Jewish Governor-General of Australia.[4]

Cowen was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, in 1966. From 1970 to 1977 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland in Brisbane. In 1977 Ray Crooke painted Portrait of Professor Emeritus Sir Zelman Cowen which is part of the University of Queensland collection.[5] By this time he was regarded as one of the leading constitutional lawyers in the English-speaking world. He was Emeritus Professor of Law at Melbourne and the Tagore Professor of Law at the University of Calcutta. During his time in Queensland he handled disturbances at the university, resulting from protests against the Vietnam War, with diplomatic skill.


When Sir John Kerr's turbulent period of office as Governor-General ended with his early resignation in 1977, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, offered Cowen the post. He was in some ways a perfect choice. He was a distinguished Australian with an international reputation, his knowledge of the Constitution and the law were beyond dispute, and his political views were unknown. The fact that Cowen was Jewish gave his appointment a multicultural aspect in keeping with contemporary Australian sentiment. He served four and a half years as Governor-General, from December 1977 to July 1982.

Post vice-regal career

From 1982 to 1990 Cowen was Provost of Oriel College, Oxford.[2] After his retirement he returned to Australia and became active in Jewish community affairs in Melbourne. He also pursued a range of other interests, including serving for five years on the board of Fairfax Newspapers (three of them as Chairman) during a turbulent period for the company; and being patron of St Kilda Football Club. During the lead-up to the 1999 Australian republic referendum, he supported a moderate republican position.[6]

Cowen had four children, Shimon, Yosef, Kate and Ben.[7] His son, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne.[8]


Cowen suffered from Parkinson's disease for at least the last 15 years of his life.[9][10] He died on 8 December 2011, at the age of 92, at his home in Toorak, Victoria.[1] It was the 34th anniversary of his swearing-in as Governor-General in 1977.

His state funeral at Melbourne's Temple Beth Israel was attended by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard.[11]


Cowen's first honour was a Order of Australia (AK) in 1977, and sworn of the Privy Council in 1977. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia in 1980 she appointed Cowen a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO).

In 1981, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) established the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture which is widely recognised as Australia’s leading award for public buildings.

Melbourne Law School awards the Zelman Cowen Scholarship to incoming Juris Doctor students. Awarded purely on the basis of academic merit,[12] it is the law school's most prestigious scholarship. A special issue of the "Melbourne University Law Review" in 2015 published papers from a 2014 conference on legal, international, liberty, literary, university, and other public issues of significance in Cowen's life and work; contributors included Glyn Davis, Justice Susan Kenny, Michael Crommelin, Donald Markwell, Cheryl Saunders, and Sir Frank Berman.[13]

Further reading

  • Zelman Cowen, "A Public Life - The Memoirs of Zelman Cowen". 2006 The Miegunyah Press (An imprint of Melbourne University Ltd.) ISBN 0-522-85270-X.
  • Donald Markwell, "Sir Zelman Cowen", in 'A large and liberal education': higher education for the 21st century, Australian Scholarly Publishing & Trinity College, University of Melbourne, 2007.
  • Donald Markwell, "Sir Zelman Cowen: 'a touch of healing'" and "Universities and contemporary society: civility in a free society", in "Instincts to lead": on leadership, peace, and education, Connor Court, 2013.


  1. ^ a b c Michael Gordon; Michelle Grattan (9 December 2011). "He 'restored Australia's faith': Sir Zelman Cowen dies at 92". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "The Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen". Hawke Centre Biography. The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  3. ^ Ross Cranston (Jan 2015). "Cowen, Sir Zelman (1919–2011)".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ Cowen, Zelman (1967). Isaac Isaacs. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 
  5. ^ Hergenhan, Laurie (July 2013). "A tale of three portraits" (pdf). Fryer folios. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  6. ^ Anti-republican cause recruits Bill Hayden, ABC, 7 October 1999
  7. ^ 5 Minutes 10 Minutes (2011-12-15). "The Australian". The Australian. Retrieved 2011-12-31. 
  8. ^ About Us - Institute for Judaism and Civilization
  9. ^ "Former governor-general dies". The Australian. AAP. 9 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011 (UTC). 
  10. ^ "ABC News, 9 December 2011". 2011-12-09. Retrieved 2011-12-31. 
  11. ^ Kellee Nolan (14 December 2011). "Sir Zelman Cowen the genius Governor-General". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 14 December 2011 (UTC). 
  12. ^ "Scholarships for Local Students-Zelman Cowen Scholarships".Melbourne Law School, Accessed 9 December 2011
  13. ^ "Melbourne University Law Review" (2015) Volume 38(3)


  • Speech about Cowen's life
  • Profile of Zelman Cowen
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir John Kerr
Governor-General of Australia
Succeeded by
Sir Ninian Stephen
Academic offices
Preceded by
Michael Swann
Provost of Oriel College, Oxford
1982 to 1990
Succeeded by
The Rev Ernest Nicholson
Media offices
Preceded by
Patrick Neill
Chairman of the Press Council
Succeeded by
Louis Blom-Cooper
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