Burnet Institute pays tribute to Sir Zelman Cowen

Burnet Institute

09 December, 2011

Sir Zelman Cowen, 7 October 1919 – 8 December 2011

The Board and staff of the Burnet Institute are saddened to hear of the passing of the Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen AK, GCMG, GCVO, KStJ, Kt cr, former Governor-General of Australia.

Sir Zelman was a great supporter of the Burnet Institute as a Patron, also lending his name and family support to the Institute’s Sir Zelman Cowen Fellowship Fund formerly known as the Sir Zelman Cowen Cancer Foundation.

The Foundation, founded in 2004 to support cancer research at the former Austin Research Institute has since raised more than $500,000 for cancer-related projects. The recently formed Sir Zelman Cowen Fund is a Fellowship program at the Burnet Institute, which aims to attract leading scientists and health professionals within Australia to research issues such as infectious diseases and cancer, as well as the impact of drugs and alcohol on youth in Australia and around the world.

Burnet Institute Director and CEO, Professor Brendan Crabb said Sir Zelman was a great Australian and an inspiration to all at the Institute and showed an enormous interest in our research programs.

“He was enthusiastic about the Fellowship Fund and understood the importance of retaining great scientific talent in Australia,” Professor Crabb said.

Burnet Institute Board member Ms Natasha Stott Despoja said that Sir Zelman played a significant role in successfully restoring the respect of the office of Governor General after a difficult political term by his predecessor.

“While Sir Zelman made significant contributions within political, legal and academic circles and he was also very involved in human rights issues and had a strong interest in medical research, “ Ms Stott Despoja said.

Sir Zelman was educated at St Kilda Park State School, followed by Scotch College, where he showed early promise and was awarded dux of the college. He then moved on to tertiary education at the University of Melbourne, where he studied Arts and Law, and was named the Supreme Court Prizeman.

From 1941 to 1945, Sir Zelman served in the Royal Australian Navy, working in naval intelligence during World War II. He was based in Darwin during the attack from Japan in 1942 and later went on to be based in Brisbane as a sub-lieutenant under General Macarthur.

He then went on to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, where he graduated from a Bachelor of Civil Law and jointly won the Vinerian Scholarship. He went on to become a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, between 1947 and 1950. He later served as its Provost, from 1982 to 1990 and pro-vice chancellor between 1988 and 1990.

Sir Zelman returned to Australia as a very young professor and dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne in the early 50s. He describes this period as ‘one of the most exciting times of my life. We were all very hard working, proud, community-focused. They talk about the dull fifties… for me, we were building great visions’.

He later became the vice chancellor of the University of New England in 1967 and the University of Queensland in 1970. He is regarded as handling student unrest during that period with tact and grace, insisting that the university must uphold the values of a civil society. In 1977 he was chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee.

Between 1976 and 1977, Sir Zelman headed the role of Law Reform Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia. During this time, he addressed the need for the law to keep up with the times during a time of mass globalisation, as well as rapid development within the science and technology sectors.

Sir Zelman’s contributions have been recognised by a number of honours, the first of which was a Knight Bachelor in 1976. Upon being appointed Governor-General, he was awarded a knighthood of the Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, as well as a Knight of the Order of Australia. At a later date Sir Zelman was sworn of the Privy Council and in 1980 he was honoured by Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Australia, with the appointment as a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order.

His retirement gave Sir Zelman time to pursue a range of other interests, including being as an active member of the Jewish community affairs in Melbourne, serving a five year tenure on the board of Fairfax newspapers, and also acting as a patron of his much loved St Kilda Football Club. He has long voiced support for an Australian Republic.

The Burnet Institute salutes Sir Zelman and expresses its condolences to Lady Anna, and four children, Simon, Yossi, Kate and Ben.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Paul Rathbone

Executive General Manager, Public Affairs & External Relations




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