Photo of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue by Bahudhara, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, 1 August 1932 – 4 February 2024

One of Australia’s most revered Aboriginal Leaders, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, died peacefully on 4 February 2024 aged 91. After her death, Noel Pearson described her as “the greatest Aboriginal leader of the modern era” and as “the rock who steadied us in the storm”.

Lowitja, a Yankunytjatjara woman, was born in 1932 at De Rose Hill Station, in the remote northwest corner of South Australia. Her mother was Lily Woodforde, Yankunytjatjara, and her father, Tom O’Donoghue, an Irishman. Lowitja was one of five siblings who were all removed from their mother. When she was two, Lowitja was taken from her mother and with another older sibling, was placed in Colebrook Home, where three older siblings were already living.

After leaving Colebrook in 1949 as a 17-year-old, she became a domestic servant for a family at Victor Harbour. In 1953, she applied to do her nursing training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH). When she was refused entry, due to her Aboriginal heritage, she lobbied directly to the Premier, Sir Thomas Playford who advocated for her to be accepted into nursing. Lowitja began her nursing training in 1954 and in 1959 she was promoted to Charge Sister at the RAH.

Lowitja was not reunited with her mother for 33 years after removal until 1967 when they met at Oodnadatta. Lily could not speak English and Lowitja could not speak Yankunytjatjara but she later described their meeting as one of loving exchanges beyond words.

In 1964, Lowitja met Gordon Palmer Smart, a medical orderly at the Repatriation Hospital. They married in 1979 but did not have any children. Gordon died in 1992, leaving six children from a previous marriage.

Lowitja, who had a long and distinguished career, campaigned for the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal peoples in the 1967 Referendum. The positions she held included, a member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, Regional Director of the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the inaugural Chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference and the inaugural Chairperson of ATSIC – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Lowitja’s awards included: a Member of Australia Award, Advance Australia Award, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Australian of the Year in 1984, Honourary Fellowship from the Royal College of Nursing and an Honourary Fellowship from the Australasian College of Physicians. In 1998, she was declared a National Living Treasure, and in 1999, Companion of the Order of Australia. In 2005, Lowitja was invested as a  Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great (DSG) by Pope John Paul II and in 2009 she received the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award and seven honourary doctorates from across Australian Universities.

Lowitja won universal admiration for her leadership, tenacity and integrity and was the first Aboriginal woman to speak at the UN. Peter Goers described her in his column in the Sunday Mail, as a woman of “grace, wisdom, guts, a ready smile and respect in her heart”. What a legacy!  Lowitja also played hockey for many years in the same team as our Josephite sister, Gail Leslie, who described her as “an outstanding player” and a “good sport”.

Following her death. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described Dr O’Donoghue as “one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known”, with an “abiding faith in the possibility of a more united and reconciled Australia despite enduring discrimination from the earliest days of her life”.

Her life vocation was one of service creating opportunities and positive outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Lowitja’s courage to speak out and her ability to work with people from all sides of the political spectrum have helped raise awareness of the needs of Australia’s First Nations Peoples and the importance of advancing reconciliation. Her family wrote in her obituary she would be remembered “for all the doors she opened” and “arguments she fought and won”.

Kenise Neill rsj

View the story of Stolen Generations Survivor Kunyi June Anne McInerney who was influenced by Lowitja O’Donoghue.