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Zelman Cowen

Sir Zelman Cowen

Sir Zelman Cowen (born 7 October 1919), 19th Governor-General of Australia, was born in Melbourne. 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 Oxford University, where he completed a doctorate in law. From 1947 to 1950 he was a fellow of Oriel College at Oxford, and was also a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Germany.

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 (and first Jewish) Governor-General.

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 succeded is restoring the dignity and respect of the office after the tumults of the Kerr years. Fraser was Prime Minister throughout his term and there were no significant constitutional issues to deal with. After his retirment he lived in Melbourne and was active in Jewish community affairs. During the 1999 debate on Australia becoming a republic, he supported a moderate republican position.

Preceded by:
Sir John Kerr
Governors-General of Australia Followed by:
Sir Ninian Stephen