The opening credits of The Point with Stan Grant features a range of iconic images that reflect on the state of the nation. One of them is our fifty dollar note, which bears the portrait of David Unaipon.
Nevanka McKeon

29 Feb 2016 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2020 - 12:10 PM

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following article contains images of deceased persons.

Just how many of us can honestly say we have ever given thought to who the Aboriginal man on the $50 note is? What is his story and what makes him so extraordinary to be given such an honour?

This man who appears on the Australian $50 note, forever etched into our history, is David Unaipon. He was born at the Point McLeay Mission (now known as Raukkan), on the Lower Murray in South Australia, on 28 September 1872. David Unaipon (also written as Ngunaitponi) was a writer, inventor, public speaker and preacher.

Not only was he a proud Ngarrindjeri man who was well known for being a spokesperson for improving the conditions and rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The non-drinking/non-smoking advocate made many significant contributions to science and literature.

David Unaipon gained a reputation throughout his life, of being ‘Australia's Leonardo’ for his promotion of scientific ideas.

Some of David Unaipon's inventions include an improved hand tool for shearing sheep, a centrifugal motor, a multi-radial wheel and a mechanical propulsion device. Unfortunately, he unable to get financial support to develop many of his own ideas in his lifetime.

Despite David Unaipon’s many inventions, and despite how well-known and acclaimed he was in Australia, he still faced discrimination because of his Indigenous background and was often refused a room in hotel establishments.

David Unaipon died at the age of 94. A man of great intelligence and vision, he was well before his time and his achievements truly speak for themselves. Below is a timeline of the work and achievements of the great man on our $50 note.

- 1902: 4 January 1902, Unaipon married a Tangani woman from the Coorong, Katherine Carter, née Sumner, at Point McLeay.

 - 1909: Unaipon patented an improved hand tool for sheep shearing which provided great economic benefits to the Australian wool industry.

- 1914: Unaipon anticipated the helicopter, applying the principle of the boomerang. His search for the secret of perpetual motion lasted throughout his lifetime.

- 1920s: From the early 1920s, Unaipon studied Aboriginal mythology and compiled his versions of legends.

- 1924: Unaipon became the first Aboriginal writer to be published for his article ‘Aboriginals: Their Traditions and Customs’ in the Daily Telegraph on 2 August 1924.

- 1928 –1929: He assisted the Bleakley inquiry into Aboriginal welfare.

-1930: His writings were included in Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals (London, 1930). The handwritten manuscript of another one of his books on Aboriginal legends (which is reflected in the $50 banknote) survives in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, New South Wales.

- 1934: Unaipon urged the Commonwealth to assume responsibility for Aboriginal Affairs and proposed that an independent board replace South Australia's chief protector of Aboriginal people.

- 1953: Unaipon was awarded a Coronation Medal. The Queen instituted the medal in honour of her Coronation.

- 1967: Unaipon died on 7 February 1967 at Tailem Bend, South Australia and was buried in Point McLeay (now known as Raukkan) cemetery.

-1985: He was posthumously awarded the FAW Patricia Weickhardt Award for Aboriginal writers.

-1988: He was also honoured with the establishment of an annual national David Unaipon Award for unpublished Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and an annual Unaipon Lecture in Adelaide

- 1996: The University of South Australia named the Unaipon School within the Indigenous College of Education and Research in honour of David Unaipon and his father James Unaipon, the first Aboriginal teacher in South Australia.

Available on SBS On Demand)

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