Professor Lowitja (Lois) O’Donoghue AM CBE

Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue AM CBE was born in 1932 at Indulkana in South Australia of Pitjantjatjara and Irish descent. She was Australian of the Year in 1984, the first and only Aboriginal Australian to address the UN General Assembly, for seven years the most senior Aboriginal person in public office and a delegate to Australia’s 1998 Constitutional Republic Convention.

When she was two years old, she and two of her sisters were taken away from their mother by missionaries on behalf of the Aboriginal Protection Board. The girls grew up at Colebrook Children’s Home and did not see their mother again for over 30 years.

At the home, her Aboriginal name, Lowitja, was changed to ‘Lois’. She wasn’t allowed to speak her own language or to ask questions about her origins or about her parents. The home became her family. She remembers Colebrook as ‘a very spartan place’ run by two maiden missionary ladies.

She attended Unley General Technical High School before starting training as a nurse in a small coastal hospital in South Australia. After initial training, she was refused entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to continue her studies, because she was Aboriginal. This led to her active involvement with the Aboriginal Advancement League, joining with other Aboriginal people, trade unions and churches to agitate for the rights of Aboriginal people to enter professions and take up apprenticeships. She fought the decision and in 1954 became the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide. She graduated and became a Charge Sister at the hospital, where she stayed for ten years.

In the mid 1960s Lois went to Assam in India to work with the Baptist Overseas Mission. She returned to Australia and after the Referendum in 1967 which recognised Aboriginal people as full and equal citizens joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She accepted a position in Coober Pedy where an aunt and uncle, noticing the family resemblance, recognised her in a local supermarket. They told her that her mother, Lily, was at Oodnadatta. They sent word to her mother that Lois would visit her.

Work delayed Lois for three months. Every day for those three months her mother stood on the road, from dawn to dusk, waiting for her. When Lois and her older sister, Eileen, finally made the trip, their mother was too ashamed of her living conditions to welcome them into her ‘humpy’. They stayed at a hotel. Even more tragically, they could not communicate in their language, Pitjantjatjara, without an interpreter.

In 1975 she became the director of the South Australian region of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Two years later, she was a founding member of the National Aboriginal Conference. Lowitja O’Donoghue was named Australian of the Year in 1985 in recognition of ‘her enormous personal contribution in bridging the cultural gap between Aboriginal people and the rest of the Australian Community’. She believed the award highlighted the fight for Aboriginal equality:

We are all here now and we have to solve our differences and live together as Australians.

She concluded her acceptance speech by saying:

I will use the title you have honoured me with to bring Australian people together. Together we can build a remarkable country, the envy of the rest of the world.

In 1990 she was appointed as inaugural chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), advising government on policy and managing a budget of a billion dollars a year. O’Donoghue played a key role in major policy initiatives that followed, including the formation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, legislation on Native Title and the framing of a comprehensive social justice package. On Reconciliation she said:

We have a long way to go but there is no turning back. For indigenous Australians, the acid test of reconciliation will be improved health, better housing, education and employment. Reconciliation is the way of the future, our shared future in which Australia is united as one people with many rich cultures and a commitment to justice and equity.

Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue has received many accolades. As well as being Australian of the Year in 1984, she was named a National Living Treasure in 1998, won the Advance Australia award in 1982, was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 1977, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1983, and a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1999. She was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing. She also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the Australian National and Notre Dame Universities, and is a Doctor of Flinders University, the ANU, the University of South Australia and Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has been a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University since 2000.


Theme: Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders – Australian history and race relations – Reconciliation