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The Reforms of Innovators

The $50 banknote coupled the politician Edith Cowan with David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri man whose career included activities as an author, inventor and advocate for his people. The banknote's design by Brian Sadgrove suggests a sense of the complex and abstract qualities of their work, portraying both subjects with thoughtful expressions from three-quarters views.

David Unaipon was born at the Point McLeay Mission, South Australia, now known by its original name of Raukkan. Unaipon's father, James Ngunaitponi, was the first convert to Christianity from the Lower Murray clans, and he became an evangelist. The mission's church, built in 1869, is depicted on the banknote with Milerum (Clarence Long) and his wife Polly Beck.

David Unaipon was especially interested in recording myths and legends and, in 1924 and 1925, travelled through southern Australia collecting the stories. In the preface to his volume titled Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, Unaipon records, ‘As a full-blooded member of my race I think I may claim to be the first – but I hope, not the last – to produce an enduring record of our customs, beliefs and imaginings.’1 The excerpt is reproduced on the banknote, together with one of his inventions, an improved mechanical handpiece for shearing sheep.

Keyline drawing of Edith Cowan at a lectern for the $50 banknote.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, P12/255.

Preliminary designs by Brian Sadgrove of the $50 banknote.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-004227, NP-004226.

Preliminary designs by Brian Sadgrove of the $50 banknote.

Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, NP-004227, NP-004226.

Edith Cowan became the first female member of an Australian parliament when she was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Western Australian in 1921; the original facade of Western Australia's Parliament House is represented on the banknote. Cowan is shown delivering a speech from a lectern, as she did on subjects including children's welfare and women's rights. During her maiden speech to parliament, she invited her fellow members to consider the benefits of including more women in their political decisions, noting that ‘if men and women can work for the State side by side and represent all the different sections of the community … I cannot doubt that we should do very much better work in the community than was ever done before.’2


1. David Unaipon, Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, MS, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, A 1929, unpaginated.

2. HCJ Phillips (ed), The Voice of Edith Cowan, Australia's First Woman Parliamentarian, 1921–1924, Edith Cowan University, Perth, 1996, pp 31, 34.

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