The Guardian • Issue #2093

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC MBE DSG 1932-2024


Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue

Photo: Bahudhara – CC BY-SA 3.0

On 4 February 2024, in Tartanya, (Adelaide), on Kaurna country, a great Aboriginal leader and highly honoured Australian, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, passed away. Her state funeral took place in St Peters Cathedral North Adelaide on 8 March. Present were hundreds of family members, supporters, and dignitaries including the Prime Minister.

Born to a Yankunytjatjara mother, Dr O’Donoghue was placed in a children’s home in Quorn in the mid-north of the state at the age of two by her Irish father who had been fined on account of his partner being an Aboriginal women. Dr O’Donoghue’s sisters and brother suffered the same fate, a family separated by the prejudicial South Australian justice system of the 1930s. At the same time the missionaries who ran such homes were beholden to an assimilationist view that involved telling the children that Aboriginal culture is “of the devil.”

As a young girl at the Colebrook Home in Quorn, Dr O’Donoghue was informed by the matron in charge that she would “never amount to much.” However, she went on to become the first Aboriginal nurse to graduate from the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Even there she still was confronted by racism as she was forced to lobby South Australian members of parliament and even the Premier to be granted a traineeship. No doubt, this experience was instrumental in her becoming a dedicated advocate for Aboriginal people for the rest of her life; her advocacy very much included opening the door for Aboriginal women to join the nursing profession.

Joyfully, by chance she met her mother after 30 years of separation, the family bond being renewed by all her siblings.

Activism involved Dr O’Donoghue in joining The Aborigines Advancement League in South Australia as she campaigned strongly in the 1967 referendum for the Federal government to be able to pass legislation for Aboriginal Australians and allow them to be counted in the national census.

After a decade of nursing, Dr O’Donoghue joined the state public service, rising to the level of regional director in the South Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs, where she had to deal with patronising bureaucrats who, as she would say, “decided they knew what was better for us”.

In 1990, Dr O’Donoghue became the foundation chairperson of ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, an organisation she helped to create. Her renowned negotiating skills came to the fore, as well as her firmness and determination that proved a tremendous asset when confronting conservative politicians who seemed to lack any empathy with, or understanding of, Aboriginal Australians.

In 1992 Dr O’Donoghue was invited to speak to the General Assembly of the United Nation, the first Aboriginal Australian to do so. The present governor of South Australia, Frances Adamson, has recalled that, as a young diplomat, she had the privilege to hear Dr O’Donoghue’s moving speech that recounted the challenges faced by Indigenous people in Australia, a speech that included a recommendation that Aboriginal people should be recognised in the Australian constitution.

After the 1992 High Court Mabo decision that overturned the nonsensical concept of terra nullius, Dr O’Donoghue assisted the Keating government in drafting the Native Title legislation that controversially but justly recognised Aboriginal land rights throughout Australia. Prime Minister Paul Keating later gave consideration to Dr O’Donoghue as a prospective Governor General of the Australia.

In preparation for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Dr O’Donoghue undertook a key position as Chair of the Sydney Olympic Games National Indigenous Advisory Committee, as well as being a member of the Sydney Olympic Games Volunteers Committee. During the Australia section of the relay she carried the torch through Uluru.

Following Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the stolen generation, with which she played an advisory role, Dr O’Donoghue assisted in establishing a special service, known as The Healing Foundation, to help heal Aboriginal intergenerational trauma for others like herself.

In 2014 the Lowitja Institute was establish as Australia’s only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled health research institute in honour of Dr O’Donoghue.

Among her many honours and awards were:

1976: First Aboriginal woman appointed to the Order of Australia

1984: Australian of the Year

1995: Awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal College of Nursing Australia

1998: Awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians

1998: National Living Treasure

2006: Awarded a Papal honour from Pope John Paul II and investiture as a Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

2009: Receiving a NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award

2021: Awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Adelaide in recognition of a “lifetime contribution to the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, leading to significant outcomes in health, education, political representation, land rights reconciliation”.

Dr O’Donoghue’s authorised biography Lowitja, by author Stuart Rintoul, was published in September 2020.

On her 90th birthday in 2022 Dr O’Donoghue proudly announced the formation of the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation within the Lowitja Institute, dedicated to creating “change through self-determined pathways that provide equality, empowerment, voice and action.”

During her inspiring life, Dr O’Donoghue sought with dignity to bring non-Indigenous Australians with her as she worked to advance the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Ron Hall, Aboriginal Advancement League SA
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