The life of a little-known anthropologist who was reviled by his peers has won the National Biography Award.
Australian National University historian Martin Thomas received the $25,000 award for The Many Worlds of R.H. Mathews: In Search of an Australian Anthropologist.
Mathews (1841-1918) was a surveyor with no academic qualifications who devoted his later life to gathering knowledge and promoting respect for Aboriginal cultures after he found a cave painting in the Hunter Valley.
He did much of his research by visiting Aboriginal communities - not common practice then - and was dismissed as an amateur by contemporaries in the budding field of anthropology.
His records of Aboriginal languages have helped with cultural rejuvenation and native title claims.
The chairman of the judging panel, Peter Rose, described the book as ''an urgent and stirring example of biography as retrieval, with a moral message. It is the study of a magnificent obsession.''
Dr Thomas could not attend the presentation at the Mitchell Library yesterday but spoke by video from his home.
His interest in Mathews began when he was researching a previous book about the Blue Mountains at the Mitchell Library.
''I looked up the name of this surveyor … and found he had more than 100 catalogue entries,'' he said. ''He was one of those incredibly intense 19th-century collector figures and had 2200 pages of unpublished data. I began to piece together that there was a really significant story to be told.''
Dr Thomas calls his book a ''speculative biography'' because Mathews was an elusive subject and it demonstrates the limitations of biography in dealing with lives from the past.
However, the significance of his work continues to grow for Aboriginal people.
''The great sadness and problems of today are brought into relief by the way Aboriginal people are dependent on Mathews for his linguistic work,'' Dr Thomas said.
Prizemoney for the winner was increased by $5000 from last year and for the first time the short-listed authors each received $1000. They were Tim Bonyhady for Good Living Street: The Fortunes of My Viennese Family, A.J. Brown for Michael Kirby: Paradoxes & Principles, Delia Falconer for Sydney, Paul Kelly for How to Make Gravy and Mark McKenna for An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark.