Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cowan, Ronald William Trafford (1914–1964)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Ronald William Trafford Cowan (1914-1964), by unknown photographer

Ronald William Trafford Cowan (1914-1964), by unknown photographer

Monash University Archives, 2087

Ronald William Trafford Cowan (1914-1964), educationist, was born on 10 April 1914 at Unley Park, Adelaide, third child of William James Trafford Cowan, pastoralist, and his wife Ethel Hilda Hedwig, née Hantke. Educated first by governesses on his father's property, 'Fernleigh', at Lucindale, Ron spent two years at boarding-school in England before entering the Collegiate School of St Peter in 1928 and then St Mark's College, University of Adelaide (B.A., 1936). He excelled as an all-rounder, gaining colours in athletics and football, and a first in history and political science; G. V. Portus recalled him as 'perhaps the wisest' of his students. Selected as Rhodes Scholar for South Australia for 1936, Cowan went to England and entered New College, Oxford, where he took a good second in Modern Greats in 1938 and a B.Litt. in 1939 with a thesis on Australian federalism.

Returning to St Mark's that year, Cowan enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 3 June 1940 and was posted to the 2nd/27th Battalion. He fought in Syria in 1941, was commissioned in September and served in Papua in 1942-43, chiefly as an intelligence officer. Promoted temporary major on 18 October 1943, he taught at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Canada, in 1944. Back in Australia, in January 1945 he was appointed senior instructor at the Land Headquarters School of Military Intelligence; he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 30 October. On leave in Adelaide he had married Mary Josephine Dawson on 18 July 1942 in the chapel of his old school. Late in 1945 he stood unsuccessfully as a member of the Liberal Country League at a by-election for the seat of Victoria in the South Australian House of Assembly.

Appointed warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, Cowan took office on 2 June 1946. Unlike his aloof predecessor (Sir) John Behan, he was a direct and forceful warden. Stocky and bespectacled, he was unbending in discipline but nevertheless convivial, risking his dignity in the college billiards-room the more easily because he usually won. He demanded high standards, admitted students on the basis of academic performance and expelled them for failure, with no favours for the sons of former members. Cowan observed his students keenly, and counselled wisely those who sought his advice. An exceptionally efficient man, he left his predecessor's elaborate files untouched and ran Trinity with a minimum of paper: the only instruction found by his successors was an outdated reminder to hire a bull for the college cows. (His nickname was, inevitably, 'The Bull'.) Sharing Cecil Rhodes's admiration for the residential college as an educational environment, he fostered a strong tutorial programme. He believed the best colleges were small, but accepted the inevitability of growth and carried through a building programme sufficient to serve Trinity for some decades. In 1961 he skilfully negotiated the separation from Trinity of Janet Clarke Hall.

An excellent committee man, Cowan made himself 'virtually indispensable' in academic Melbourne. He served twice on the university council, discreetly led his fellow heads of colleges, helped to found International House and the Overseas Service Bureau, and served as president of the university football club and vice-president of the staff association. He sat on the councils of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the Boy Scouts' Association, presided over Melbourne Rotary and was secretary of the association of Rhodes scholars in Victoria. Appointed to the interim and first councils of Monash University, he won praise from its founding vice-chancellor for his vision and plain speaking.

Cowan was vice-president of the Australian Council for Educational Research. In a series of outspoken addresses, including the Sir Richard Stawell oration of 1961, he called for the transfer to the Commonwealth of sole responsibility for education, and for a doubling of expenditure. He edited a symposium, Education for Australians (1964), but, before it appeared, fell ill with bacterial endocarditis. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he died on 26 June 1964 in Royal Melbourne Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. A portrait by L. Scott Pendlebury is in Trinity College.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Grant, Perspective of a Century (Melb, 1972)
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Sept 1964
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 June 1964
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 27 June 1964
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 June 1964
  • Trinity College, University of Melbourne, Archives
  • University of Melbourne Council minutes (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Cowan, Ronald William Trafford (1914–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cowan-ronald-william-trafford-9846/text17417, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Ronald William Trafford Cowan (1914-1964), by unknown photographer

Ronald William Trafford Cowan (1914-1964), by unknown photographer

Monash University Archives, 2087