The University of Sydney
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The Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC

Sir Zelman Cowen (centre) at the launch of the Fund’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Inflammation Initiative pictured with the Fund’s Managing Trustee, Prof Jonathan Stone (far rt) and Fund supporters, Mr Berel & Mrs Agnes Ginges.

Zelman Cowen was born on the seventh of October 1919, in St Kilda, Melbourne, the son of Bernard and Sara Cowen. His secondary education was at Scotch College, where he was dux of school. At the University of Melbourne he studied Arts and Law and in 1940 he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. From 1941 to 1945 Sir Zelman served in naval intelligence and was based in Darwin during the Japanese attack of 1942. He was later a sub-lieutenant on General Macarthur's staff in Brisbane. After the war, he studied at Oxford, and from 1947 to 1951 he was lecturer in law and a fellow of Oriel College at Oxford.

In 1951 he returned to Melbourne as a very young Professor of Public Law and Dean of the Faculty . From 1967 to 1970, Sir Zelman was vice-chancellor at the University of New England, and from 1970 to 1977 vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland. In 1969 he became an academic member of the Board of the Hebrew University and in 1977 he was chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. Between 1976 and 1977 he was a Law Reform Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia.

In 1977, he was made Governor General. In 1982, when his term was completed, he returned to Oriel as Provost, a position he held until 1990. He was also pro-vice chancellor of Oxford University between 1988 and 1990. From 1983 to 1988 he was chairman of the British Press Council.

Sir Zelman's contributions to the law and to Australian society have been recognised by many honours. In 1976 he was awarded a knighthood of the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, and in 1977 he was honoured with a knighthood of the Order of Australia and with a knighthood of the Grand Order of Saints Michael and George. In 1981 he was made a Privy Counsellor.

His many publications and speeches reflected the number and breadth of his interests. He was in great demand as a speaker; his speeches included the Boyer lectures, the first Sir Robert Menzies Lecture in Britain in 1988, and the second Annual Bob Hawke Lecture. He also spoke for the Jewish Historical Society and in memory of outstanding members of the Jewish community, of which he was a loyal and active member all his life. The focuses of his writings included international law, the law of evidence, the freedom of the press and the rights of the individual and a biography of the first Jewish governor general of Australia, Sir Isaac Isaacs. He was also engaged in the republican debate.

After a 15-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Sir Zelman passed away on the 34th anniversary of his swearing-in as governor-general.

Sir Zelman was Patron of this Fund (the Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund) since 1997 having served as a Trustee prior to that time. When the Fund was established in 1978, by the late John Hammond, it was named in honour of Sir Zelman’s appointment as Governor General in the previous year. The work of the Fund is based on the vision of these two men. Since its establishment, Sir Zelman had an active interest in the work of the Fund and supported the Fund with warmth and generosity, ensuring its continuation and growth after the passing of its founder. That the work of the Fund will continue beyond the passing of these two founders is a tribute to their vision. Sir Zelman’s contribution will be greatly missed.

Read a speech given by The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG at a luncheon on Wednesday 14 October 2009 hosted by Melbourne Legal firm, Arnold Bloch Leibler in celebration of Sir Zelman’s 90th Birthday.

Read a speech given by Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce AC at the naming of the Victorian Jewish Museum’s Zelman Cowen Gallery of Australian Jewish History in honour of Sir Zelman’s 90th Birthday.

Read about Sir Zelman’s biography, The Memoirs of Zelman Cowen – A Public Life.

Read an obituary by Judge Michael Kirby from the Australian bar Review.