Zelman Cowen

Zelman Cowen

Infobox Governor-General
honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name=Sir Zelman Cowen
honorific-suffix =

order=19th Governor-General of Australia
term_start=8 December 1977
term_end=29 July 1982
predecessor=Sir John Kerr
successor=Sir Ninian Stephen
birth_date=Birth date and age|1919|10|17|df=y
profession= Legal professor
religion= Judaism

Sir Zelman Cowen, AK, GCMG, GCVO, QC (born 7 October 1919), was the 19th Governor-General of Australia.

Early life

Cowen was born in Melbourne in 1919. He was educated at the University of Melbourne, and served in the Royal Australian Navy during World War II. He then went as a Rhodes Scholar to New College, Oxford, where he completed the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law and jointly won the Vinerian Scholarship. From 1947 to 1950 he was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and was also a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Germany.

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. 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.

Cowen was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, in 1966, and in 1970 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland in Brisbane. 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 Kerr's early resignation in 1977, 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 professional qualifications were beyond dispute, and since he had never been in politics his political views were unknown. The fact that he was Jewish gave his appointment a multicultural aspect in keeping with contemporary Australian sentiment.

Cowen served five years as Governor-General, and succeeded in restoring the dignity and respect of the office after the tumult of the Kerr years. Fraser was Prime Minister throughout his term, and there were no significant constitutional issues to deal with.

Post Vice-Regal Career

From 1982 to 1990 Cowen was Provost of Oriel College, Oxford. After his retirement he returned to Australia and became active in Jewish community affairs in Melbourne, where he continues to reside. He has 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. His son, Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen, is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne.

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


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 and Knight of the Order of Australia 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.

Further reading

"A Public Life -The Memoirs of Zelman Cowen" 2006 The Miegunyah Press (An imprint of Melbourne University Ltd.) ISBN 0 522 85270 X.

ee also

* Australian knights and dames


* Speech about Cowen's life: http://www.mup.unimelb.edu.au/speech/fajgenbaum_speech.html

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