WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned the following story contains the name and image of someone who has passed away.

One of Australia’s most influential Aboriginal leaders, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG has died at the age of 91.

A proud Yankunytjatjara woman, Dr O’Donoghue dedicated her life to improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in a career that spanned nearly 60 years.

Dr O’Donoghue was born in De Rose Hill, in remote South Australia. At the age of two, she and her older siblings were removed from their mother and placed at Colebrook Children’s Home, nearly a thousand kilometres away in Quorn (later moved to Eden Hills in Adelaide). Her name was changed to Lois and she was denied the right to speak her own language or ask questions of her mother, Lily.

Charge sister at Royal Adeliade Hospital
(Image: Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation website).

She began working as a domestic but went into nursing. In 1954, Dr O’Donoghue became the first Aboriginal person to train as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, although she did have to fight for it. She went on to become Charge Sister at the hospital despite the racism she endured for decades.

Dr O’Donoghue also became active in the Aboriginal rights movement. She joined the SA Aboriginal Advancement League, campaigned in the 1967 Referendum and became a member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement. In the 70s she changed careers, moving from nursing to the public service and was appointed Regional Director of the South Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

In 1977, she was appointed the founding Chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference, an early precursor to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which she would later become inaugural Chairwoman of in 1990. During her leadership, she played a significant role in negotiations on native title legislation in response to the Mabo decision in the High Court. She was also a central figure in the National Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney was saddened to hear of Dr O’Donoghue’s passing. She’s paid tribute to her legacy.

“Lowitja’s leadership and tenacity has been an inspiration for generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, including myself.”

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney MP

Dr O’Donoghue was named Australian of the Year in 1984, and became a National Living Treasure in 1998.

In a statement to media, niece Deb Edwards said her aunt died peacefully in her Adelaide home with her immediate family by her side.

“Aunty Lowitja dedicated her entire lifetime of work to the rights, health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We thank and honour her for all that she has done – for all the pathways she created, for all the doors she opened, for all the issues she tackled head on, for all the tables she sat at and for all the arguments she fought and won.”