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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Lowitja O'Donoghue (1932–2024)

by Jennifer King

Lowitja O'Donoghue addressing the National Press Club, by Loui Seselja (1992)

Lowitja O'Donoghue addressing the National Press Club, by Loui Seselja (1992)

National Library of Australia, PIC NL37054 LOC NL37054

Lowitja O’Donoghue was told as a child she would never make anything of her life, but the Yankunytjatjara leader went on to change the course of history through her advocacy for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Taken from her mother and her culture at two years old as one of the stolen generations, she said the harsh discipline she experienced growing up in a loveless mission home ignited her appetite for social justice and equality for First Nations communities.

The life of O’Donoghue, who has died on Kaurna Country in South Australia aged 91, was shaped by the prejudice she experienced as a woman born between two cultures – Aboriginal and white – and by her refusal to be defined by it. Her formidable capacity for activism was triggered by her battle to become the first Aboriginal nurse at the Royal Adelaide hospital, despite the matron repeatedly telling her to ‘go nurse your own people in Alice Springs’.

At the time, O’Donoghue had no idea where she came from, but she knew it was not Alice Springs/Mparntwe.

From a working life that began as a 16-year-old servant, O’Donoghue went on to become the first Aboriginal person named a Companion of the Order of Australia, the first to address the UN general assembly and the first chair of the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, overseeing its most successful years.

She was a lead negotiator alongside then prime minister Paul Keating in the drafting of the Native Title Act that arose from the high court’s 1992 Mabo decision. It was Keating who shortlisted O’Donoghue for a vice-regal position, one that ultimately went to Sir William Deane.

In his 2018 oration named in her honour, Noel Pearson called O’Donoghue ‘our greatest leader of the modern era’.

‘Resolute, scolding, warm and generous – courageous, steely, gracious and fair. She held the hardest leadership brief in the nation and performed it bravely and with distinction,’ he said of her guidance during native title negotiations.

O’Donoghue was the fifth child of Lily, a Yankunytjatjara woman, and Tom O’Donoghue, an Irish stockman. She was born on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands at Granite Downs station in South Australia in 1932. While never certain of her birthdate, O’Donoghue celebrated it on 1 August, the date given to her by white missionaries.

‘All I know about my birth is that I was actually born in the bush, like all Aboriginal children at those times. It was a traditional birth attended by the grandmothers as, of course, is the traditional way. And the only other thing I know, of course, is that I never had a birth certificate. And, of course, I still don’t have a birth certificate,’ she told the Australian Biography project in 1994.

She never knew her father, and when she was two, she and two of her sisters were taken from their mother by missionaries acting on behalf of the Aborigines Protection Board. The girls were sent to live at what was known as the Colebrook Home for Half-Caste Children, where they were forbidden to speak their language or ask about the whereabouts of their parents. O’Donoghue did not see or hear from her mother again for more than 30 years. In a 2011 interview , she recalled the grief of her childhood, saying she did not remember ever ‘being kissed or touched or loved or anything like that’. 

In a 2006 interview, she said: ‘I didn’t like it of course, particularly when we were told our culture was of the devil. And because I heard that too many times I became quite rebellious because I was always asking the questions: Who am I? Where did I come from?’

O’Donoghue attended Unley general technical high school, but at 16 was sent to Victor Harbour as a servant for a large family. Two years later, she began basic nursing training before attempting to transfer to the Royal Adelaide hospital to continue her education. When the matron refused her because she was Aboriginal, O’Donoghue took her battle to the state premier and anyone else in government who would listen to her case.

‘I’d resolved that one of the fights was to actually open the door for Aboriginal women to take up the nursing profession, and also for those young men to get into apprenticeships,’ she said in 1994.

O’Donoghue was eventually accepted and spent 10 years at the hospital, including as a charge nurse. She travelled to India to nurse, an experience that honed her determination to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples in her later senior leadership positions within various agencies of Aboriginal affairs and the public service.

While nursing at Coober Pedy in the late 1960s, O’Donoghue was recognised by a group of Aboriginal people. From them, she learned that her birth name was Lowitja, and that her mother was a heartbroken woman living in appalling conditions in Oodnadatta. When mother and daughter eventually reunited, there was tension and a language barrier. Her biographer, Stuart Rintoul, writes that she would later talk of their reunion as a lesson in the ‘limitlessness of hope and the strength of patience’. 

O’Donoghue told the Australian Biography project that reconnecting with her Aboriginal family brought ‘new meaning and a whole new dimension’ to her life, moving her to devote herself entirely to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In 1979, O’Donoghue married Gordon Smart, a hospital orderly she had met in the late 1960s. He died in 1991. The couple did not have children together, as O’Donoghue chose to dedicate her life to her work.

O’Donoghue was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1977, invested as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1983 and made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1999. In 1984, she was named Australian of the Year and in 2005 a Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great, a papal award. She holds multiple honorary doctorates and fellowships and was patron of the Lowitja Institute.

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Citation details

Jennifer King, 'O'Donoghue, Lowitja (1932–2024)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/odonoghue-lowitja-34124/text42797, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Lowitja O'Donoghue addressing the National Press Club, by Loui Seselja (1992)

Lowitja O'Donoghue addressing the National Press Club, by Loui Seselja (1992)

National Library of Australia, PIC NL37054 LOC NL37054