Zelman Cowen

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The Right Honourable
Sir Zelman Cowen
Zelman Cowen.jpg
Provost of Oriel College, Oxford
In office
Preceded by Baron Swann
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

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

Early life[edit]

Cowen was born in Melbourne in 1919 to a Jewish family[1] named Cohen. The name was formally changed to Cowen when he was a young boy.[2] He was educated at St Kilda Park State School, Scotch College and the University of Melbourne.[3] He served in the Royal Australian Navy during the Second World War, and was in Darwin during the bombing raid of 1942, before being transferred to Brisbane to work in the cipher unit of General MacArthur's office[4]. He married Anna Wittner in 1945[5]. Cowen 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,[6] and was also a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Allied-occupied Germany.[7]

Educational career[edit]

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.[8]

Cowen was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, in 1966. The following year, he produced for ABC television the "Yes" case for the Australian referendum, 1967 (Aboriginals).[9] From 1970 to 1977 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, during the difficult years of the Vietnam War and Springbok tour student protests[10][11]. In 1977 Ray Crooke painted Portrait of Professor Emeritus Sir Zelman Cowen which is part of the University of Queensland collection.[12] 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.[3]


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.[citation needed] He served four and a half years as Governor-General, from December 1977 to July 1982.

Post vice-regal career[edit]

From 1982 to 1990 Cowen was Provost of Oriel College, Oxford.[6] 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.[13]

Cowen had four children, Shimon, Yosef, Kate and Ben.[14] His son, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne.[15]


Cowen suffered from Parkinson's disease for at least the last 15 years of his life.[16][17] 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 in St Kilda 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.[18]


Cowen's first honour was a Knight Bachelor in 1976. When appointed Governor-General he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) and Knight of the 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,[19] 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.[20]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Markwell, Donald (2016). Constitutional Conventions and the Headship of State: Australian Experience. Connor Court. ISBN 9781925501155. 
  • 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 Gordon, Michael; Grattan, Michelle (9 December 2011). "He 'restored Australia's faith': Sir Zelman Cowen dies at 92". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  2. ^ Veitch, Harriet (10 December 2011). "Sir Zelman Cowen, 1919-2011: Chosen for the role of healer". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 14 September 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Juddery, Bruce (15 July 1977). "Governor-General: Nothing if not a public man". The Canberra Times. p. 2. 
  4. ^ Commonwealth of Australia (February 7, 2012). "Condolences: Sir Zelman Cowen" (PDF). House of Representatives: Votes and Proceedings: Hansard: 1–35. 
  5. ^ "WEDDINGS". Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954). 1945-06-08. p. 4. Retrieved 2017-07-13. 
  6. ^ a b "The Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen". Hawke Centre Biography. The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  7. ^ Ross Cranston (Jan 2015). "Cowen, Sir Zelman (1919–2011)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/104456.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ Cowen, Zelman (1967). Isaac Isaacs. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 
  9. ^ Skala, Steven (10 December 2011). "My friend the lawyer, educator and healer of a nation's wounds". The Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Archived from the original on 3 December 2013. 
  10. ^ "Political Chronicles - Queensland". Australian journal of politics and history. 24 (1): 89–95. April 1978. 
  11. ^ "Loyal alumna reflects on UQ in the 1970s". UQ News. Retrieved 2017-07-13. 
  12. ^ Hergenhan, Laurie (July 2013). "A tale of three portraits" (pdf). Fryer folios. Retrieved 3 December 2014. 
  13. ^ Anti-republican cause recruits Bill Hayden, ABC, 7 October 1999
  14. ^ 5 Minutes 10 Minutes (2011-12-15). "The Australian". The Australian. Retrieved 2011-12-31. 
  15. ^ About Us – Institute for Judaism and Civilization
  16. ^ "Former governor-general dies". The Australian. News Limited. AAP. 9 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011. 
  17. ^ "Former governor-general Cowen dies aged 92". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. AAP. 9 December 2011. Archived from the original on 9 December 2011. 
  18. ^ Nolan, Kellee (14 December 2011). "Sir Zelman Cowen the genius Governor-General". Daily Telegraph. News Limited. Retrieved 14 December 2011. 
  19. ^ "Scholarships for Local Students-Zelman Cowen Scholarships".Melbourne Law School, Accessed 9 December 2011
  20. ^ "Melbourne University Law Review" (2015) Volume 38(3) http://www.law.unimelb.edu.au/mulr/issues/current-issue


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