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David Unaipon

You probably already know this face – he's on our $50 note – but there is a lot more to David Unaipon than just his picture.

Born in 1872 at the Point McLeay Mission on the Lower Murray in South Australia, David Unaipon would become a great inventor, an Indigenous rights advocate and Australia's first published Aboriginal writer.


Volume 1: Manuscript of 'Legendary Tales of Australian Aborigines'

Unaipon's fascination for science was kindled under the teaching of Mr. W. Hutley. Unaipon went on to develop many inventions including an improved hand-piece for sheep-shearing which was patented in 1909 with the help of Herbert Basedow, a former South Australian Protector of Aborigines. The two exchanged many letters which are now held in the Mitchell Library.



"Born between two great forces; Heathenism and Civilisation," Unaipon was influenced at a young age by the teachings of the Congregationalist church and was also aware of his Aboriginal spiritual ancestry. In trying to fuse these two halves, he became a great protagonist for Aboriginal affairs, and undertook wherever he travelled to preach and educate.

During 1924 - 1925, he journeyed through southern Australia compiling what became Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines. The manuscript was submitted for publication but Unaipon was not to be credited for it yet. Instead the book was sold to William Ramsay Smith, an anthropologist who edited the work slightly and published it under his own name in 1930 with the title Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals. The book was finally published in Unaipon's name, using his original title, in 2001. His original manuscript survives to this day in the Mitchell Library collection.

His extraordinary lifetime of achievements was formally recognised in 1953 when he was awarded the Coronation Medal. He died on 7 February 1967 and in 1985 was posthumously awarded the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers. He was further honoured in 1988 with the establishment of the annual national David Unaipon Award for unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, and an annual Unaipon Lecture in Adelaide. Finally, in 1995 he was immortalised on our $50 note!


This story has been developed with the support of the State Library of NSW Foundation.

We would like to acknowledge the generosity of Rio Tinto and the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Foundation.