Canberra Citizen of the Year


Sir Zelman Cowen (1919-2011) 

Lady Anna Cowen (born 1925)

Sir Zelman and Lady Cowen open the Belconnen Town Centre Library 

Sir Zelman and Lady Cowen opening Belconnen Town Centre Library, 18 September 1981

Source: ACT Heritage Library image 002610, Canberra Times Collection, Photographer Jim Green.

Zelman Cowen was born Zelman Cohen on 7 October 1919, only son of Bernard Cohen (ca 1892-1975), then a commercial traveller, and his wife Sara nee Granat. Bernard was born in Russia, lived as a teenager with his family in London, and emigrated to Western Australia in 1911 before settling in Melbourne in late 1915. In 1918 he married Sara, daughter of Russian-born Harris Granat.

Sara envisaged a great future for her son but, in the social climate of the time, an obviously Jewish surname could be a disadvantage. Bernard therefore changed the name to Cowen, just in time for their next child's birth in March 1922. Zelman's second sister was born in November 1932.

The family lived in St Kilda not far from the football club's then home ground; Zelman was a keen supporter, and on the occasion of the team's first premiership, on Yom Kippur 1966, he resolved the moral dilemma of attending either the match or the Synagogue by going to both, noting in passing that the scriptures were silent on the subject. In 1990 his lifelong support was rewarded by being made patron of St Kilda Football Club.

Zelman attended the local state primary schools and then Scotch College, where in 1935, aged 16, he won a series of high academic awards that took him to the University of Melbourne where he studied Arts and Law. While at university he discovered classical music and became the music critic for the university newspaper, Farrago.

He graduated in 1941 and enlisted in the Navy Reserve as a cipher clerk, was posted to Darwin in time for the Japanese air raids of 1942, then back to Brisbane from 1943 as an intelligence officer. Before his Law degree was completed he was lecturing to adult education classes; when he was demobilised in 1945 he returned to the university as a lecturer in law, aware that his future was in the academic world rather than the courtroom.

Also in 1941 he won the Victorian Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford but could not take it up until the end of the war. This was fortunate because in 1945 the university permitted the Rhodes Scholars from 1939 to 1941 to be married students.

Zelman met Anna (called Anne) Wittner in 1943 when she was a 17 year old about to begin an Arts and Social Work degree at the University of Melbourne. She was born on 5 July 1925, the only daughter of Hyman Joseph Wittner (ca 1895-1974), son of a Romanian immigrant, and Dora nee Melwit. Zelman and Anna married in June 1945; she was not quite 20, and finished her degree at Oxford. In Justice Michael Kirby's words, “they became a partnership of intellect, culture and wit”.

Anna's father founded Wittner Shoes in Footscray in 1912. An energetic, innovative man, he was the first to sell shoes by mail order and also introduced an x-ray machine into his stores so that customers could see how their feet fitted the shoes. Anna and her brother inherited a controlling share of the business when Hymie died; David bought her out in the early 1990s. Wittners is one of the oldest family firms in Australia, with an online store launched in 1997 and over 70 retail stores.

Zelman graduated in Civil Law from Oxford in 1947 and was admitted first to the English Bar and later to Queensland and Victoria, and was made a Queen's Counsel (QC) in 1971. He spent four years as a Fellow of Oriel College, where he wrote a biography of Sir Isaac Isaacs, the first Australian-born Governor-General, as his doctoral thesis while also working as a legal consultant to the British Army of Occupation in Europe.  He was appointed Dean of the Law Faculty at Melbourne University (1951-1956), Vice-chancellor of the University of New England (1967-1970) and Vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland (1970-1977).

In his autobiography he speculated on why Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser appointed him Governor-General in 1977; he came to the conclusion that, besides his already being a well-known public figure, Mr Fraser probably took into account his interest in the promotion of consensus in a divided society. No doubt his proven ability to do so, in his sensitive but decisive handling of the student unrest at Queensland University, was a key factor in the decision.

A no less significant factor was the Cowens themselves. Two years after Sir John Kerr dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam the nation was still highly distrustful of the office of Governor-General. By 1982, when Sir Zelman was nearing the end of his five-year term, a Canberra woman wrote to him:  “I was somewhat disenchanted by your office at the time but on that occasion [opening the Canberra Grammar School music centre] I was so impressed by the great interest you took in the whole proceedings … that [I felt] that you were not there merely as a figurehead”. A letter to the editor of the Canberra Times in 1981 claimed: “ Sir Zelman and Lady Cowen, by their quiet cultured attitude and behaviour have lifted the office of Governor-General from the mire to the highest respect and loyalty possible in the 20th century”.

Genuine interest in people was the hallmark of the Cowens' way of life. Sir Zelman acknowledged that he was “by nature a public person”, and enjoyed serving his many communities. Anna both supported him and lived her own busy professional life, involved with education, welfare and the arts. She described herself in 1977 as a 'house mouse' who was happily devoted to her family and home life; wherever they were, she created a home. The chairman of the Canberra Festival Committee noted when announcing the 1982 Canberran of the Year Award that they were “a husband-and-wife team that has endeared themselves to all sectors of the community”. The 'team' was greatly moved by the award.

On the grounds that he had done as much as he could to heal the wounds of 1975, Sir Zelman declined the offer to extend his term as Governor-General, and went back to  Oxford as Provost of Oriel College (1982-1990). During his tenure he was also chairman of the British Press Council (1983-1988), pro vice-chancellor of Oxford (1988-1990), and a member of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Universities of Jerusalem (from 1982) and of Tel Aviv (from 1984).

The Cowens returned to Melbourne in 1990 where Sir Zelman served as chairman of the board of Fairfax newspapers. Although suffering from Parkinson's disease he remained intellectually involved with the significant social and legal issues of the time, including the controversial 1999 referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. His very readable autobiography was published in 2006.

Sir Zelman received every civil honour available in Australia in his lifetime, and several others from overseas, as well as numerous honorary degrees, fellowships and professorships. Despite this, and his acknowledged pleasure in the accolades, he remained very much the young man whose assessment by the Navy in 1942 was “an attractive personality with a brilliant brain”.

He died in Melbourne on 8 December 2011, aged 92. Lady Cowen's “rather magical life hanging on to this man's coat-tail” continued under her own impetus, and in 2015 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) not just for vice-regal patronage and support roles, but for her personal, significant service to youth, medical research, and educational, historical and cultural organisations.

Select Bibliography

2006 Cowen, Zelman, A Public Life, Carlton, Vic : Miegunyah Press

2012 Kirby, Michael, 'Cowen, Sir Zelman (1919–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed 23 November 2015, Originally published in Australian Bar Review, vol 36, no 1, 2012, pp 79-81

2013 If the succession fits. Alan Kohler, 19 September, viewed 23 January 2016,

2013 The Sir Zelman Cowen Centre for Science, Scotch College, Melbourne, viewed 24 January 2016,

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.