Zelman Cowen: A Life of Legal and Academic Excellence

Zelman Cowen, known in Hebrew as זלמן כהן, was a distinguished Australian Jewish jurist and legal scholar who served as the eighteenth Governor-General of Australia from December 8, 1977, to July 29, 1982. He was the second Jewish individual to hold this prestigious position, succeeding Sir Isaac Isaacs.

Early Life and Education

Zelman Cowen was born on October 7, 1919, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, to Jewish parents, Bernard and Sarah Cohen. He pursued his education in Melbourne, attending Scotch College before studying law and arts at the University of Melbourne. However, his studies were interrupted due to the outbreak of World War II.

During the war, Cowen served in the intelligence division of the Australian Royal Navy from 1941 to 1945, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. After his military service, he resumed his studies at New College, Oxford, in England, thanks to a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.

He completed his undergraduate law degree at the University of Oxford, achieving further distinction by winning the Vinerian Scholarship, one of the most esteemed legal scholarships in the world.

From 1947 to 1951, Cowen served as a lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford. Subsequently, he returned to Australia and became a lecturer at the Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne, where he taught for 16 years. During this period, he also earned his doctorate in law in 1968.

Cowen's academic career extended to various universities worldwide, including the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, the University of Washington, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, starting in 1969. In 1967, he authored a biography of Sir Isaac Isaacs, Australia's sixth Governor-General, and its first Jewish and native-born Governor-General.

Cowen's reputation as a legal expert in constitutional matters led to advisory roles for the governments of Britain, Ghana, and Hong Kong.

From 1983 to 1988, Cowen served as the Chairman of the British Press Council, further solidifying his prominence in the legal and academic realms.

Personal Life

Zelman Cowen was married to Anna and had four children.

Governor-General Role

The position of Governor-General in Australia is analogous to that of the President of Israel. The Governor-General's role is strictly defined by Australian constitutional law, and their authority is derived solely from the Australian monarch.

In November 1975, Australia faced a constitutional crisis regarding whether the Governor-General had the power to dismiss the government, as stipulated in the Australian Constitution, or if it was merely a ceremonial role with all powers exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. At the time, Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General, believed that the former interpretation was correct.

Acting upon this belief, he dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on behalf of the Labour Party and appointed Malcolm Fraser, the leader of the Liberal Party, as Prime Minister. Subsequently, Malcolm Fraser won the ensuing elections, and John Kerr continued in his role.

In this context, Zelman Cowen was appointed as the Governor-General's successor, endorsed by Prime Minister Fraser. Cowen was chosen for his expertise in constitutional matters and his lack of overt political affiliation. It was hoped that his appointment would emphasize a non-partisan, professional approach to the role. Indeed, Cowen's tenure from December 8, 1977, to July 29, 1982, proved successful in calming the political tensions and restoring public trust in the position of Governor-General.

Post-Governor-General Years

After concluding his term as Governor-General, Cowen returned to the United Kingdom and served as the Warden of Oriel College, Oxford. He held this position for eight years, retiring in 1990. During this time, he battled Parkinson's disease but continued to be active in his professional life.

For approximately five years, Cowen also played a prominent role in Australia's media landscape, serving on the board of directors of Fairfax Media, one of Australia's largest media companies. Concurrently, he remained involved in the Australian Jewish community. In 2006, Cowen published his autobiography.

Zelman Cowen passed away in December 2011 at the age of 92.

Throughout his life, Cowen received numerous prestigious awards, both in the United Kingdom and Australia. In 1981, the Australian Institute of Architects established the Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Buildings, one of the most esteemed architecture awards in Australia. Additionally, the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne awards a scholarship annually in his honor, considered the most prestigious scholarship offered by the institution.

Zelman Cowen's legacy endures not only through his academic contributions and public service but also in the recognition of his achievements through these esteemed awards and scholarships bearing his name.

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