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First People Then And Now: David Unaipon

First People Then And Now: David Unaipon

David Unaipon (1872-1967) won recognition as an inventor, a writer and a scholar. He was a successful scientist, lecturer, musician and preacher.

He received national recognition when he was featured on the Australian 50 dollar note.

50 dollar Australian note


David Unaipon was born in 1872  and when he died in 1967 it was the year of the referendum.  Australians voted to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census.

A newspaper report in 1931 says Unaipon astounded professors at Sydney and Melbourne universities by his intelligence and his capacity to absorb knowledge.


Ngarrindjeri man


A Ngarrindjeri man, Unaipon, was born at the Point McLeay Mission, on the lower reaches of the Murray River in South Australia.  His parents were Yaraldi speaking people from the Yorke Peninsula area.

He was part of a large family and had eight siblings. 

At the mission school Unaipon learnt music and became the church organist. At this time he began reading widely among the books and journals at the mission.




He developed an interest in engineering and wanted to become an inventor.

Unaipon succeeded in making improvements to the design of the sheep-shearing machines that were in use around the turn of the century.

Between 1909 and 1944 Unaipon applied for nineteen separate patents for his invention. This interest in invention remained throughout his life.

He made several designs for perpetual motion machines. He did early research into the use of the laser and to the development of a flying machine like the helicopter.

Unaipon studied Aboriginal traditional stories compiling and publishing his own books of legends.

In 1953 he was a recipient of the Coronation Medal. Even in his nineties Unaipon worked on his inventions.

During his lifetime Unaipon saw Aboriginal people incarcerated first on church missions and then later on government reserves.

He saw the effect of the laws that allowed children to be taken away and separated from their parents and siblings – the Stolen Generation.

He saw Aboriginal men and women being sent to work as servants in private white families.

He witnessed the various forms of discrimination which resulted from the various policies of different governments.

He also saw Aboriginal people fighting for their rights through the Australian political system and he, too, was an activist for Aboriginal rights.

Unaipon died at Tailem Bend and lies buried in the Point McLeay cemetary.





Barlow, Alex and Hill, Marji  Heroes of the Aboriginal Struggle. South Melbourne, Vic, Macmillan, 1987.

Marji Hill

Author: First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians