Saints and sinners: tracking our most famous Australians

Dr Karen Fox explores the most popular searches from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and which Australians loom largest in our popular imagination – including saint Mary McKillop and bushranger Ned Kelly.

One of the benefits of online publishing is the ability to track how often material is accessed. I’ve been fascinated to explore data on the most frequently viewed Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) articles between January 2015 and June 2020, kindly provided to me by the ADB’s computer programmer, Michael Hannaford.

Compiled as month-by-month lists of the top 10 and top 100 most frequently accessed biographies, this data provides intriguing insights into how people access the ADB, and, perhaps, into who the most famous Australians are.

Some biographies are consistently popular. The bushranger Ned Kelly, for example, is a perennial favourite. In 2015 he topped the list nine months out of 12, and he appeared second in the data for each of the other three months, being beaten twice by Sir Henry Parkes, the New South Wales premier and “father of federation,” and once by the Eureka stockade leader and Victorian politician Peter Lalor. Kelly’s top-of-the-pops status was not always this constant, but across the four and a half years of data examined his name was never outside the top 10 results.

Besides Kelly, Lalor, and Parkes, several others regularly featured in the top 10. Among them we find Sir Edmund Barton, Australia’s first federal prime minister and then a High Court judge; the poet and journalist AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson; and the explorer and navigator Captain James Cook. Intriguingly, Cook’s popularity appears to have waned in 2020, with his entry falling out of the top 20 in three separate months.