Woman O'Donoghue, Lowitja (Lois) (1932 - )


South Australia, Australia
Aboriginal rights activist, Nurse and Public servant

Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Lowitja O'Donoghue is a Yunkunytjatjara woman from South Australia. She was born in 1932 to Tom and Lily O'Donoghue, but with two of her sisters was removed from her family two years later by the South Australian Aboriginal Protection Board and placed with missionaries in the Colebrook Children's Home. She did not see their mother again for over thirty years. She has said, 'The thinking, of course, at that time was that they were actually soothing the dying pillow and that Aboriginal people would die out. And so by moving ... removing the half-caste child and bringing in the regime of the half-caste children eventually becoming so-called white people' (Hughes, tape 1).

Like other Aboriginal girls raised in mission homes, O'Donoghue went out to work as a domestic at the age of sixteen. She was employed by a family at Victor Harbour. Here, she was eventually encouraged to work as a nursing aide at the local hospital. O'Donoghue's work on behalf of Aboriginal rights began in the early 1950s when she tried to extend her qualifications. She applied to complete her training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, but was refused the opportunity because she was Aboriginal. She fought the decision, which was eventually overturned and she became the first Aboriginal person to train as a nurse at the hospital. She had by then joined the Aboriginal Advancement League, to advocate on behalf of other Aborigines and specifically to ensure employment options other than domestic work for women and manual labour for men could be available to them.

After completing her training O'Donoghue worked at the Royal Adelaide Hospital for another ten years and became a charge sister. In the 1960s, she travelled to India to nurse with the Baptist Overseas Mission. The experience was pivotal. She realised Australian aborigines 'weren't the only people that had been colonised and that they weren't the only people who were dispossessed' (Hughes, tape 4). It gave her a broader perspective on indigenous cultures and made her more determined to resist and fight the discrimination against Indigenous peoples implicit in colonial situations. When she returned to Australia she joined the state public service, working as an Aboriginal liaison officer and a welfare officer. When the federal Office of Aboriginal Affairs was established in 1967, after the referendum to change the Australian Constitution to give Federal Government the power to implement policies on Aboriginal people, she transferred to the department's Adelaide office to work in administration. From 1975 to 1979, she held the senior position of regional Director of the office for South Australia - the first woman to be a regional director of a federal department - and was responsible for the local implementation of national Aboriginal welfare policy.

During this time O'Donoghue married hospital orderly Gordon Smart, who died in 1991. She also became increasingly involved in a variety of organisations working to advance Aboriginal rights. She chaired Aboriginal Hostels Limited and the Aboriginal Development Commission and was a chairperson of the National Aboriginal Congress for a short time in the early 1980s before it was dissolved. She was foundation Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission from 1990 to 1996 and oversaw the restructuring of the bureaucracies dealing with Indigenous affairs. Lowitja O'Donoghue became a member of the Australian Republic Advisory Committee in 1993 and of the Aboriginal Negotiating Team for Native Title Legislation. She chaired the National Indigenous Olympic Committee.

Lowitja O'Donoghue's leadership in Aboriginal rights has been highly influential. A member of the stolen generation, she has also been an advocate of reconciliation and avoided politics of confrontation, finding conciliation to be more effective:

Hatred isn't a very healthy emotion. I've had to bite my tongue often because I'm naturally angry when we are badly treated. But I don't often lose my temper. Even those Aboriginals who accuse me of being too conciliatory during negotiations say they respect me though they don't agree with me always. (Cockburn, p. 78)

Lowitja O'Donoghue received the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and was declared an Australian National Living Treasure in 1998. She has been awarded numerous honours in recognition of her contribution to Aboriginal affairs including, in 1977, being the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded the AO. She has also received a CBE, an AC and honorary doctorates from universities around Australia.

O'Donoghue continues to work hard on committees work and as a public speaker, She is a patron of many health, welfare and social justice organisations, including, more recently, Australians for Just Refugee Programs. In 2010, Australia's National Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research was named the Lowitja Institute in her honour.

Published Resources


  • Cockburn, Stewart, Notable Lives: Profiles of 21 South Australians, Ferguson Publications, Adelaide, South Australia, 1997. Details
  • O'Donoghue, Lowitja; Cunningham, Joan; and Jennings, Karen, Lowitja /‚Äč by Lowitja O'Donoghue ; as told to Joan Cunningham and Karen Jennings., Working Title Press, Adelaide, South Australia, 2003. Details

Book Sections

  • Cockburn, Stewart, 'Elder of our nation', in Stewart Cockburn (ed.), Notable Lives: Profiles of 21 South Australians, Ferguson Publications, Adelaide, South Australia, 1997. Details

Online Resources