December 9

Sir Zelman Cowen [1919 – 2011]

Sir Zelman Cowen, AK, GCMG, GCVO, QC, PC1 was the 19th Governor-General of Australia. A disinguished and much loved Australian, he passed away in Melbourne on 8 December 2011,  aged 92  

Executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim, expressed his condolences to Sir Zelman's family. It is with great sadness that I inform you that Sir Zelman Cowen was gathered unto his people this evening,” Mr Wertheim said in a statement.

May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”


Sir Zelman was born in Melbourne in 1919. 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, and was also a legal consultant to the British Military Government in Germany.

In 1951 Sir Zelman returned to Australia and was appointed 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. 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. 

Sir Zelman 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.


 When Sir John Kerr resigned as  Governor-General in 1977,  Sir Zelman was appointed to the post.  A distinguished Australian with an international reputation, his professional qualifications were beyond dispute and, since he had never been in politics, his political views unknown, the appointment was met with general approval.

….later service…

 From 1982 to 1990 Sir Zelman was Provost of Oriel College, Oxford and Chairman of the British Press Council where he served with great distinction.  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 surprised many by abandoning his previous position supporting the constitutional monarchy. He joined with Sir Gerard Brennan and Sir Anthony Mason, in the “Three Knights’ letter” to The Australian indicating support for the “Keating-Turnbull “republic.  This was published on the front page. (A reply from three jurists was published in a later edition in a far less prominent position.) 

Sir Zelman's 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 Architecture' which is widely recognised as Australia’s leading award for public buildings. 

Melbourne Law School awards the Zelman Cowan National Scholarship to incoming Juris Doctor students. Awarded purely on the basis of academic merit, it is the law school's most prestigious scholarship.

 Sir Zelman’s first honour was a Knight Bachelor in 1976. When he was 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. In 1980, Queen Elizabeth II  knighted Sir Zelman  as a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO). 

Sir Zelman was a great Australian. Australians for Constitutional Monarchy convey our deepest sympathy to Lady Cowen and their family. 


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