Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue: 1 August 1932-4 February 2024

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue: 1 August 1932-4 February 2024

She has been extensively documented and chronicled at length as an Indigenous pioneering trail blazer and fierce advocate in Australia for recognition of the political and social identity of her native people. In the face of multiple barriers her powerful advocacy took root at the highest levels of State, political, governmental and academic institutions that had become a focus of her commitment. In Australia she gained formal recognition as a ’National Living Treasure’. Her accolades of achievements, titles and numerous awards provide proof of her relentless efforts and determination to succeed in her life mission to improve the Aboriginal welfare. She was the first Aboriginal speaker to address the UN General Assembly, New York in 1993 for the launch of International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. It provided a global forum for her to use the worldwide presence to spread a universal message of her native cause.

Life and Upbringing

              Her birth was unregistered. She was born in 1932 and later assigned a birth date of l August 1932 by the missionaries. She was born on a cattle station later identified as De Rose Hill in the south of Australia. She was the fifth of six children of Tom O’Donoghue, a stockman and pastoral lease holder of Irish descent and Lily, an Aboriginal woman, whose tribal name was Yunamba and member of a local clan. Lowitja was baptised by a pastor of the United Aborigines Mission (UAM). Her father who died in 1960 had joined his brother Mick in Central Australia in 1920 and broke horses at Granite Down until 1923 where he was granted land on a large pastoral lease at De Rose Hill. After the birth of their first child Eileen, Tom and Lily had another five children up until 1935. Mick had two sons who were handed over to the UAM who then moved 700 kilometres south to Quorn in the Flinders Rangers where the Colebrook Home was established in a cottage above the town.

In September 1934 Lowitja was removed from her mother at the age of two and handed over to the Colebrook Home on behalf of the South Australia’s Aboriginal Protection Board along with her sisters, Amy, four years old and Violet, six years old. Upon arrival they then met their older siblings, Eileen aged ten and Geoffrey aged eight.  The missionaries called her Lois. She had no memory of any time spent with her parents and after 1994 she changed her name back to Lowitja.  It took many years for her to be reunited with her mother who was in poor condition and had no idea of where her children had been sent.

According to her father she was happy living at Colebrook where she was receiving a sound education both there and at the Quorn primary school where the missionaries were keen for the children to attend. There was a warm welcome but also divided views about their integration. It allowed Lowitja to attend the local Unley High School where she obtained an Intermediate Certificate. She was taught up to the level of Leaving Certificate but did not take the examination.

At sixteen she was sent to work as a domestic servant for a large family at Victor Harbour. After two years she worked as a nursing aide in a seaside town and did some basic training. She then applied to be a student nurse in Adelaide. After a long struggle to win admission to train at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) including lobbying the Premier of South Australia and others in government. She became the first trainee Aboriginal nurse in South Australia. In 1994 she said “I’d open the door for Aboriginal women to take up the nursing profession and also for those young men to get into apprenticeships”. She remained at the RAH for ten years after graduating in 1958 being promoted first to staff sister and then to charge nurse. Her path took her to India working as a relief nurse at the Baptist Overseas Mission to replace missionaries returning on leave to Australia. She was probably the first part Aboriginal to be appointed from Australia to an overseas mission. Her outreach spread far and wide in her dedicated mission that carried on throughout her life.

In 1979 she married Gordon Smart, a medical orderly, whom she had first met in 1964. He died in the early 1990s. He had six adult children from a previous marriage but they had no children together.  She retired from public life in 2008 and in her later years was cared for by her loving family on Kaurna Country in Adelaide, South Australia.

In commemoration of her 90th birthday in 2022 the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation was established which aims to preserve her work and legacy and provides educational resources and scholarships to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In September 2020 an account of her life story titled Lowijta: The Authorised Biography of Lowijta O’Donoghue was written by Stuart Rintoul, a former journalist and senior writer at The Australia, also an expert in indigenous languages and history. The book was shortlisted for the Walkley Award and was largely commended in the National Awards in 2021. Aged 91 she died peacefully on 4 February 2024 with her immediate family by her side. Upon her death her moving family eulogy has requested that her formal title to be used is Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG. *

Ita Marguet, March 2024

Note:    Acknowledgement is given to the sources used in preparation of this text. It is intended as a contribution to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March 2024. * AC Commander of the Order of Australia, CBE Commander of the British Empire, DSG Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great, a Papal honour bestowed by Pope John Paul ll.