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Aboriginal Australian academic and activist, Gordon Briscoe (b. 1938), was in institutions as a child.

Gordon Briscoe was born at the Old Telegraph Station Native Institution in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. He is a descendent of the Marduntjara and Pitjantjatjara nations of Central Australia. Gordon’s mother, Eileen, was taken from her mother to live in an institution in Alice Springs as a child. His father was the son of a telegraph station manager who died before Briscoe was born.

In 1942, the Old Telegraph was evacuated after the Japanese attacked Darwin. Gordon described this journey in a short documentary (University of Sydney).

I can distinctly remember leaving Alice Springs by truck… in evacuation of the half-castes from the half-caste institutions in and around the Northern Territory. I remember the army trucking us out… We had to travel by cattle truck. I distinctly remember the smells of the cattle trucks.

Gordon and Eileen were initially sent to Mulgoa in Penrith, Sydney. Gordon stayed in the Mulgoa Children’s Home dormitories, which he referred to as a “hut.” At the children’s home, associated with the Church of St Thomas, Gordon “spent many hours attending services” in church.

After Gordon’s younger brother was born, the family was moved to Balaklava, a small town in the Mid-North region of South Australia where they remained until the end of WWII.

After the war, Gordon was sent to St Francis House, an institution for mixed-race children in Adelaide. He only saw his mother, who worked in a laundry down south, a few times a year. Eileen remarried and moved back to Alice Springs in 1950, but Gordon could not afford to visit.

In his early years at St Francis, Gordon was under the care of Father Percy Smith. At the time, Gordon looked up to him as a father figure. Ultimately, Gordon viewed the Reverend as well-intentioned but misguided in his approach to Aboriginal welfare. In a keynote speech on the history of the Anglican Church and Aboriginal people, Gordon concluded:

I can say now that much of the success of St Francis’ House and Father Percy Smith’s dream was because he allowed and encouraged us to be Aborigines and made every effort to keep our ties with our families.

After leaving St Francis, Gordon and many of his peers began playing for the Exeter Aussie Rules Football Club in Adelaide. 

The Exeter Aussie Rules Football Club offered me the chance to play with them alongside other Aboriginal boys I grew up with such as Wilfred Huddleston, Ritchie and James Bray, Tim Campbell and Harry Russell. Exeter found me a labouring job at a government foundry on the Port River and I worked there until about August of 1961. The foundry belonged to the Department of Water and Sewage, and while appreciated by me as an income, it was one of the worst jobs the Port Adelaide district could offer (Briscoe, 97).

Gordon then moved overseas to pursue a professional football career and in 1961, he began playing for the Hemel Hempstead Club in England, but returned to Australia in 1962. 

During the 1960s and 1970s, Gordon campaigned for Aboriginal rights as both an activist and government professional. He helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Medical Service, and the National Tribal Council. In 1971, Gordon served as the National Tribal Council’s inaugural Minister for Health.

Gordon worked for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Department of Health. In 1975, Fred Hollows invited him to be the Assistant Director of the National Trachoma Project, which identified that poor living conditions contributed to high rates of trachoma among Aboriginal people. He then conducted an inquiry into Aboriginal health within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Gordon Briscoe began his academic career in the 1980s by studying politics and history. He earned a Bachelor with Honours from Australian National University (ANU) and then completed a Masters’ thesis examining changes within Aboriginal society in Port Augusta in the post-war years. In 1997, Briscoe was the first Indigenous person in Australia to be awarded a PhD. He remained at ANU as a post-doctorate researcher, and was later appointed as a Research Fellow at the newly-established Centre for Indigenous History.

In 2002, Gordon Briscoe was awarded an Order of Australia for his academic achievements and work in Aboriginal governmental policy. He was a key contributor to The First Australians, a landmark SBS documentary first aired in 2008. His memoir, Racial Folly, A Twentieth-Century Aboriginal Family, was published in 2010.

Gordon Briscoe passed away on 30 June 2022 at his son’s home in the NSW North Coast. He is remembered for his commitment to social justice and substantial contributions to academia.

Professor Gordon Briscoe’s legacy will forever be engraved in the annals of academia, his community, and the hearts of all who knew him. His wisdom, compassion, and unwavering commitment to social justice will continue to guide us as we carry his torch forward. (AIATSIS)


AIATSIS. “Vale Professor Gordon Briscoe AO.” 7 Jul 2023, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Brown, Malcolm. “First Aboriginal person to gain PhD and to stand for federal parliament.” 20 Jul 2023, The Sydney Morning Herald.

Briscoe, Gordon. Racial Folly: A Twentieth Century Aboriginal Family. Canberra: ANU Press, 2010.

“Briscoe, Gordon (1938–).” Indigenous Australia. 

“Church Missionary Society Home for Half-Castes, Mulgoa (1942-1947).” Find & Connect, 2021. 

“Gordon Briscoe.” World Biographical Encyclopedia, 2021.

Smith, Mark J. “First Aboriginal Doctor: Gordon Briscoe, AO, BA (Hist), MA, PhD.” Alice Springs News, 19 April 2019.

“St Francis House (1946-1961).” Find & Connect, 2022.

University of Sydney. “From Central Australia to Mulgoa: Gordon Briscoe.” A History of Aboriginal Sydney, 2010-2013.

Image available here.