Zelman Cowen

Last updated

Sir Zelman Cowen

Zelman Cowen.jpg
Cowen in 1968
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
Provost of Oriel College, Oxford
In office
Preceded by Baron Swann
Succeeded by Ernest Nicholson
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, Australia
Died8 December 2011(2011-12-08) (aged 92)
Toorak, Victoria, Australia
Anna Wittner(m. 1945)
Profession Legal professor
Signature Zelman Cowen Signature GG.jpg

Sir Zelman Cowen, AK, GCMG, GCVO, PC, QC (7 October 1919 – 8 December 2011) was an Australian legal scholar and university administrator who served as the 19th Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1977 to 1982.

Queens Counsel jurist appointed by letters patent

A Queen's Counsel, or King's Counsel during the reign of a king, is an eminent lawyer who is appointed by the monarch to be one of "Her Majesty's Counsel learned in the law." The term is recognised as an honorific. The position exists in some Commonwealth jurisdictions around the world, but other Commonwealth countries have either abolished the position, or re-named it to eliminate monarchical connotations, such as "Senior Counsel" or "Senior Advocate". Queen's Counsel is an office, conferred by the Crown, that is recognised by courts. Members have the privilege of sitting within the bar of court.


Cowen was born in Melbourne, and attended Scotch College before going on to the University of Melbourne. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Royal Australian Navy. After the war's end, Cowen attended New College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship. He subsequently won the prestigious Vinerian Scholarship as the best student in the Bachelor of Civil Law degree. He remained at Oxford after graduating, serving as a fellow of Oriel College from 1947 to 1950.

Melbourne City in Victoria, Australia

Melbourne is the capital and most populous city of the Australian state of Victoria, and the second most populous city in Australia and Oceania. Its name refers to an urban agglomeration of 9,992.5 km2 (3,858.1 sq mi), comprising a metropolitan area with 31 municipalities, and is also the common name for its city centre. The city occupies much of the coastline of Port Phillip bay and spreads into the hinterlands towards the Dandenong and Macedon ranges, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley. It has a population of approximately 4.9 million, and its inhabitants are referred to as "Melburnians".

Scotch College, Melbourne school in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Scotch College is an independent Presbyterian day and boarding school for boys, located in Hawthorn, an inner-eastern suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

University of Melbourne Australian public university located in Melbourne, Victoria

The University of Melbourne is a public research university located in Melbourne, Australia. Founded in 1853, it is Australia's second oldest university and the oldest in Victoria. Melbourne's main campus is located in Parkville, an inner suburb north of the Melbourne central business district, with several other campuses located across Victoria.

In 1951, Cowen returned to Australia to become dean of the law faculty at the University of Melbourne. In 1953, still while at The University of Melbourne, he was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholarship in Law to Harvard University. [1] He became known as an expert on constitutional law, and was a visiting professor at a number of overseas institutions. He later served as vice-chancellor of the University of New England (1966–1970) and the University of Queensland (1970–1977). In 1977, Malcolm Fraser appointed Cowen to succeed John Kerr as governor-general. He was an uncontroversial choice, and became the second Jewish holder of the position, after Sir Isaac Isaacs. After leaving office, Cowen returned to academia, serving as provost of Oriel College, Oxford, from 1982 to 1990.

In academic administrations such as colleges or universities, a dean is the person with significant authority over a specific academic unit, over a specific area of concern, or both. Deans are occasionally found in middle schools and high schools as well.

Constitutional law body of law

Constitutional law is a body of law which defines the role, powers, and structure of different entities within a state, namely, the executive, the parliament or legislature, and the judiciary; as well as the basic rights of citizens and, in federal countries such as the United States and Canada, the relationship between the central government and state, provincial, or territorial governments.

University of New England (Australia) Australian public university

The University of New England (UNE) is a public university in Australia with approximately 22,500 higher education students. Its original and main campus is located in the city of Armidale in northern central New South Wales. UNE was the first Australian university established outside a state capital city.

Early life

Cowen was born in Melbourne in 1919 into a Jewish family [2] named Cohen, the son of Bernard Cohen (1892 – 1975), from Belarus [3] and Sara Cohen (née Granat; 1893 –1989), born in Australia. [4] His paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Belarus in the Russian Empire. [5] The name was formally changed to Cowen when he was a young boy. [6] He was educated at St Kilda Park State School, Scotch College and the University of Melbourne. [7] 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. [8] He married Anna Wittner in 1945. [9] 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, [10] and was also a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Allied-occupied Germany. [11]

Jews ancient nation and ethnoreligious group from the Levant

Jews or Jewish people are an ethnoreligious group and a nation, originating from the Israelites and Hebrews of historical Israel and Judah. Jewish ethnicity, nationhood, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the traditional faith of the Jewish people, while its observance varies from strict observance to complete nonobservance.

Belarus country in Eastern Europe

Belarus, officially the Republic of Belarus, formerly known by its Russian name Byelorussia or Belorussia, is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital and most populous city is Minsk. Over 40% of its 207,600 square kilometres (80,200 sq mi) is forested. Its major economic sectors are service industries and manufacturing. Until the 20th century, different states at various times controlled the lands of modern-day Belarus, including the Principality of Polotsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire.

Russian Empire Former country, 1721–1917

The Russian Empire, also known as Imperial Russia or simply Russia, was an empire that existed across Eurasia and North America from 1721, following the end of the Great Northern War, until the Republic was proclaimed by the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution of 1917.

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. [12]

Francis Patrick Donovan Australian diplomat and legal professor

Francis Patrick Donovan, was Australian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the OECD, and Ambassador and Special Trade Delegate to the United Nations Office at Geneva. After retirement from the Diplomatic Service, he became a Vice-Chairman of the International Court of Arbitration.

University of Chicago Private research university in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois. The university is composed of an undergraduate college, various graduate programs and interdisciplinary committees organized into five academic research divisions and seven professional schools. Beyond the arts and sciences, Chicago is also well known for its professional schools, which include the Pritzker School of Medicine, the Booth School of Business, the Law School, the School of Social Service Administration, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the Divinity School and the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The university holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign public research university in Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, United States

The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is a public research university in Illinois and the flagship institution of the University of Illinois System. Founded in 1867 as a land-grant institution, its campus is located in the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana.

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). [13] 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. [14] [15] In 1977 Ray Crooke painted Portrait of Professor Emeritus Sir Zelman Cowen which is part of the University of Queensland collection. [16] 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. [7]

Armidale, New South Wales City in New South Wales, Australia

Armidale is a city in the Northern Tablelands, New South Wales, Australia. Armidale had a population of 24,351 as at June 2017. It is the administrative centre for the Northern Tablelands region. It is approximately halfway between Sydney and Brisbane at the junction of the New England Highway and Waterfall Way. Armidale traditional owners are Anaiwan people. Many Gumbaynggirr people have settled in Armidale since colonisation.

University of Queensland university in Australia

The University of Queensland (UQ) is a public research university primarily located in Queensland's capital city, Brisbane, Australia. Founded in 1909 by the state parliament, UQ is Australia's fifth oldest university and is colloquially known as a sandstone university. UQ is considered to be one of Australia's leading universities, and is ranked as the 48th most reputable university in the world. The University of Queensland is a founding member of online higher education consortium edX, Australia's research-intensive Group of Eight, and the global Universitas 21 network.

Brisbane capital city of Queensland, Australia

Brisbane is the capital of and the most populated city in the Australian state of Queensland, and the third most populous city in Australia. Brisbane's metropolitan area has a population of 2.5 million, and the South East Queensland region, centred on Brisbane, encompasses a population of more than 3.5 million. The Brisbane central business district stands on the historic European settlement and is situated inside a peninsula of the Brisbane River, about 15 kilometres from its mouth at Moreton Bay. The metropolitan area extends in all directions along the floodplain of the Brisbane River Valley between Moreton Bay and the Great Dividing Range, sprawling across several of Australia's most populous local government areas (LGAs)—most centrally the City of Brisbane, which is by far the most populous LGA in the nation. The demonym of Brisbane is "Brisbanite".


Sir Zelman Cowen in July 1979 Zelman Cowen 1979-07b.png
Sir Zelman Cowen in July 1979

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. [10] 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. [17]

Personal life

On 7 June 1945, Cowen married Anna Wittner (born 5 July 1925) [18] [19] and had four children, Shimon, Yosef, Kate and Ben. [20] His son, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne. [21]


Cowen suffered from Parkinson's disease for at least the last 15 years of his life. [22] [23] He died on 8 December 2011, at the age of 92, at his home in Toorak, Victoria. [2] 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, Dame Quentin Bryce, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and John Howard. [24]


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).

He was an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (FTSE). [25]


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, [26] 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. [27]

Zelman Cowen was a 1953 Fulbright Senior Scholar in Law from The University of Melbourne to Harvard University.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Governor-General of Australia representative of the monarch of Australia

The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia is the representative of the Australian monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. As the Queen is shared equally with the 15 other Commonwealth realms, and resides in the United Kingdom, she, on the advice of her prime minister, appoints a governor-general to carry out constitutional duties within the Commonwealth of Australia. The governor-general has formal presidency over the Federal Executive Council and is commander-in-chief of the Australian Defence Force. The functions of the governor-general include appointing ministers, judges, and ambassadors; giving royal assent to legislation passed by parliament; issuing writs for election; and bestowing Australian honours.

Isaac Isaacs 3rd Chief Justice and 9th Governor-General of Australia

Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs was an Australian lawyer, politician, and judge who served as the ninth Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1931 to 1936. He had previously served on the High Court of Australia from 1906 to 1931, including as Chief Justice from 1930.

Ninian Stephen Australian jurist and former Governor-General

Sir Ninian Martin Stephen was an Australian judge who served as the 20th Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1982 to 1989. He was previously a Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1972 to 1982.

William Deane Australian Governor-General (1996-2001) and judge

Sir William Patrick Deane is a former Australian lawyer and judge who served as the 22nd Governor-General of Australia, in office from 1996 to 2001. He was previously a Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1982 to 1995.

Ormond College residential college of the University of Melbourne

Ormond College is the largest of the residential colleges of the University of Melbourne located in the city of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. It is home to around 350 undergraduates, 90 graduates and 35 professorial and academic residents.

Sir David Iser Smith is a retired Australian public servant. He was the Official Secretary to the Governor-General of Australia between 1973 and 1990, in which capacity he served Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir John Kerr, Sir Zelman Cowen, Sir Ninian Stephen and Bill Hayden.

The Vinerian Scholarship is a scholarship given to the University of Oxford student who "gives the best performance in the examination for the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law". Currently, £2,500 is given to the winner of the scholarship, with an additional £950 awarded at the examiners' discretion to a proxime accessit (runner-up).

Glyn Conrad Davis AC is a Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Public Policy. From January 2005 until September 2018 he served as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

Melbourne Law School graduate law school of the University of Melbourne

Melbourne Law School is one of the professional graduate schools of the University of Melbourne. Located in Carlton, Victoria, MLS is Australia's oldest law school, and offers J.D., LL.M, Ph.D, and LL.D degrees. The University of Melbourne Law School has been ranked seventh in the world and first in Australia in the Times Higher Education World University 2018 Subject Rankings for Law.

Jewish Museum of Australia Jewish museum in Melbourne, Australia

The Jewish Museum of Australia is the only Jewish community museum in Australia, which aims to "explore and share the Jewish experience in Australia". It is located in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne.

Walter Jona was a Liberal Party member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly.

Sir Kenneth Clinton Wheare, CMG was an Australian academic, who spent most of his career at Oxford University in England. He was an expert on the constitutions of the British Commonwealth.

Glenister Fermoy Sheil was an Australian politician, representing the National Party in the Senate for the state of Queensland from 1974 to 1981, and again from 1984-90. He was an amateur tennis player who competed at the Australian Championships in the 1940s and 1950s.

Linda Marion Dessau has been the Governor of Victoria since 1 July 2015. She is the first female and the first Jewish holder of the office. She was a judge of the Family Court of Australia from 1995 to 2013.

For the Montgomery, Alabama, talk radio personality, see Don Markwell

E. W. Tipping Australian journalist

Edmond William "Bill" Tipping (1915–1970) was an Australian journalist, social commentator and activist.

The University of Queensland Library, founded in 1910, provides library access to students of the University of Queensland in Brisbane. It developed from a small provincial university library into a major research library. It was first housed in the Old Government House building of George Street from 1911-1923. From 1923-1948, it was housed in the Art Block of the Central Technical College in George Street, next to the University. In late 1948, the library moved to the new St Lucia campus, residing in the Duhig Building. By 1954, it had already exceeded its capacity.

Shimon Cowen

Shimon Dovid Cowen is an Australian rabbi and academic. He is known for his research on, and advocacy for, the Noahide Laws, on the basis of which, he has publicly opposed homosexual marriage, abortion on demand and euthanasia.


  1. "Fulbright Scholarships". www.himaa.org.au. Retrieved 2018-10-10.
  2. 1 2 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.
  3. "Bernard Cowen". Geni.com. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017.
  4. "Sara Cohen". Geni.com. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017.
  5. Starck, Nigel (2 January 2012). "Sir Zelman Cowen obituary". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017.
  6. 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.
  7. 1 2 Juddery, Bruce (15 July 1977). "Governor-General: Nothing if not a public man". The Canberra Times. p. 2. Archived from the original on 2 October 2016.
  8. Commonwealth of Australia (7 February 2012). "Condolences: Sir Zelman Cowen" (PDF). House of Representatives: Votes and Proceedings: Hansard: 1–35. Archived (PDF) from the original on 17 March 2016.
  9. "WEDDINGS". Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954). 8 June 1945. p. 4. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  10. 1 2 "The Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen". Hawke Centre Biography. The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre. Archived from the original on 2 January 2012. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  11. 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.)
  12. Cowen, Zelman (1967). Isaac Isaacs. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  13. 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.
  14. "Political Chronicles - Queensland". Australian Journal of Politics and History. 24 (1): 89–95. April 1978. Archived from the original on 5 February 2018.
  15. "Loyal alumna reflects on UQ in the 1970s". UQ News. Archived from the original on 5 February 2018. Retrieved 13 July 2017.
  16. Hergenhan, Laurie (July 2013). "A tale of three portraits" (pdf). Fryer folios. Archived (PDF) from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  17. Anti-republican cause recruits Bill Hayden Archived 12 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine ., ABC, 7 October 1999
  18. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 30 January 2018. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  19. "Insight into Sir Zelman Cowen - The Australian Jewish News". 14 October 2009. Archived from the original on 30 January 2018. Retrieved 6 February 2018.
  20. 5 Minutes 10 Minutes (15 December 2011). "The Australian". The Australian. Archived from the original on 9 December 2011. Retrieved 31 December 2011.
  21. "About Us – Institute for Judaism and Civilization" . Retrieved 6 February 2018.[ permanent dead link ]
  22. "Former governor-general dies". The Australian. News Limited. AAP. 9 December 2011. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
  23. "Former governor-general Cowen dies aged 92". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. AAP. 9 December 2011. Archived from the original on 9 December 2011.
  24. Nolan, Kellee (14 December 2011). "Sir Zelman Cowen the genius Governor-General". Daily Telegraph. News Limited. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  25. Sir Zelman Cowen: an acclaimed Australian Archived 30 March 2018 at the Wayback Machine ., Focus, Journal Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), Number 170, February 2012, pg.50
  26. "Scholarships for Local Students-Zelman Cowen Scholarships" Archived 10 December 2011 at the Wayback Machine ..Melbourne Law School, Accessed 9 December 2011
  27. "Melbourne University Law Review" (2015) Volume 38(3) "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 9 August 2015. Retrieved 31 July 2015.


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