Lowitja O'Donoghue

Lowitja O'Donoghue
Born August 1, 1932(1932-08-01)
Indulkana, Central South Australia
Nationality Australian
Other names Lois O'Donoghue, Lois Smart
Ethnicity Indigenous Australian, Irish
Known for Public service
Spouse Gordon Smart (deceased)

Ms Lowitja "Lois" O'Donoghue, AC, CBE, DSG (born 1 August 1932[1]) is an Aboriginal Australian retired public administrator. She was named Australian of the Year in 1984 and 1990, and was inaugural chairperson of the now dissolved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).


Personal life

Lowitja O'Donoghue was the fifth of six children of the de facto marriage of Tom and Lily O'Donoghue. Her father was a stockman of Irish descent. Her mother, Lily (no known surname), was a member of the Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal tribe of northwest South Australia. Tom and Lily met while he was working at Everard Park cattle station which lay on traditional land of that clan. Lily had Luritja clan and language connections and late in life moved to their lands near Oodnadatta.[citation needed]

After living at Everard Park, where they had two children, the O'Donoghues moved in 1925 to Granite Downs, a large cattle property bordering the east of the Stuart Highway in the far north of South Australia. Their four youngest children were born here including Lowitja on 1 August 1932. Lowitja was baptised by a pastor from the United Aborigines' Mission. Her parents were concerned for the welfare and education of their children in such an isolated location as Granite Downs where there was no school, and at an early age the children were taken by their parents to the United Aborigines' Mission in Oodnadatta run by the Baptist Church. From here they were moved to the recently opened Colebrook Children's Home in Quorn run by the Mission.[2] Lowitja was one of the five O'Donoghue children educated there. According to the Home's records she arrived just before the age of three.[citation needed]

In 1979, she married Gordon Smart, a medical orderly at the Repatriation Hospital whom she had first met in 1964. He died in 1991. Following her retirement O'Donoghue formally added the name Lowitja to her existing legal name to give emphasis to her Aboriginal Luritja clan descent.[citation needed]


According to O'Donoghue she was very happy living at Colebrooke and said she received a sound education both there and at the Quorn Primary School. The Quorn community at large actively encouraged children from the home to participate in local events, and assisted in the maintenance of the home. Only a few people objected to the integration.[3]

In 1944 Colebrook Home moved to Eden Hills in the south of Adelaide due to chronic water shortages. This enabled Lowitja to go to Unley High School, a local public school, and obtain her Intermediate Certificate. She was taught up until the Leaving Certificate standard but did not sit for the examination.[4]

While at Colebrook Home the elder children assisted in taking care of younger children. Thus, with this experience, at the age of 16, Lowitja O'Donoghue's first job was as a nanny looking after six children with a family in Victor Harbor some 100 km south of Adelaide. While attending the Baptist church there she was persuaded by the Matron of the South Coast District Hospital to take up nursing as a career.

Nursing career

Victor Harbor

From 1950 to 1953 O'Donoghue worked as a nursing aide in Victor Harbor. The small hospital did not run a comprehensive training course, so with the strong support and assistance of the Matron, she applied to be a student nurse in Adelaide.

Royal Adelaide Hospital

The Royal Adelaide Hospital policy at that time was to only take nursing students who had obtained their Leaving Certificate so initially they would not consider taking her. Fortunately the Hospital shortly afterwards introduced a scheme to allow deserving students to be accepted without the necessary educational qualifications. In 1954, O'Donoghue was in the first intake of unqualified students to attend the Royal Adelaide Hospital which offered good nursing career prospects. She qualified as a nurse and worked at the Royal Adelaide Hospital until 1961, being appointed a charge nurse just before leaving.[citation needed]


She spent time with the Baptist Church working in Assam, northern India as a nurse relieving missionaries who were taking leave back in Australia. Due to the nearby Sino-Indian War she was advised by the Australian government to evacuate to Calcutta from where she returned to Australia. [4]

South Australian Public Servant

After returning in 1962, she worked as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer with the South Australian Department of Education. She later transferred to the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs and was employed as a Welfare Officer based mainly in the north of the state, in particular at Coober Pedy, some 200 kilometres south of her birthplace.

Commonwealth Public Service

Department of Aboriginal Affairs

In 1967 Lowitja O'Donoghue joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a junior administrative officer in the Adelaide office of the newly formed Department of Aboriginal Affairs. After eight years she became the Director of the Department's office in South Australia, a senior officer position, responsible for the local implementation of national Aboriginal welfare policy. After a short while she left the public service and had various management/administrative roles with non-government organisations.

Aboriginal Development Commission

Ms O'Donoghue was appointed by the Government as chairperson of the Aboriginal Development Commission.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission

In 1990 Ms O'Donoghue was appointed Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission a position she held until 1996. In 1991, she, along with Alf Bamblett and Steve Gordon, became the Aboriginal people to attend a Cabinet meeting. Ms O'Donoghue used this occasion to put ATSIC's position forward with regard to the government's response to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.[5]

In December 1992, Ms O'Donoghue became the first Australian Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly during the launch of the United Nations International Year of Indigenous People.[5] She was replaced as Chairperson by Gatjil Djerrkura, who was considered by the Howard Government to be more moderate.[5]


After starting her public service career she placed increasing public emphasis on her Aboriginal heritage rather than on her Irish heritage, and became actively involved in Aboriginal politics. Lowitja was a Chairperson of the National Aboriginal Congress for a short time in the early 1980s before it was dissolved due to internal disputes on its direction.

Member of the Stolen Generations

After the publication of the The Bringing them Home report in 1997, she said she preferred the word 'removed' from the word 'stolen' for her personal situation. [6] She was the youngest child in her family, and was two years old when she was removed from her mother. [7] After she was removed, she did not see her mother again for 33 years. During that time, her mother did not know where her family had been taken.[8]

Honours & awards

In 1976, Ms O'Donoghue was the first Aboriginal woman to be inducted into the new Order of Australia founded by the Labor Australian Commonwealth Government. The award was in recognition of her work in the welfare field.[9]

Lowitja O'Donoghue was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1983, and was named Australian of the Year[10] in 1984, for her work to improve the welfare of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1999.[11][12][13]

O'Donoghue has received honorary doctorates from Murdoch University, the University of South Australia, the Australian National University, the Queensland University of Technology and Flinders University. In 2000 she was made an honorary professorial fellow at Flinders University and was a visiting fellow at Flinders University.

She is a National Patron at the The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre.[14]

O'Donoghue was inducted into the Olympic Order in 2000.[15]

In 2005 O'Donoghue was made Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II.[16]


  1. ^ This date is believed to be an estimate as no birth certificate was issued
  2. ^ "Colebrook Home". Flinders Ranges Research. http://www.southaustralianhistory.com.au/colebrook.htm. Retrieved 30 December 2008. 
  3. ^ "Lowitja O'Donoghue—Elder of our nation". State Library of South Australia. 2001. http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/women_and_politics/abor1.htm. Retrieved 31 December 2008. 
  4. ^ a b O'Donoghue, Lowitja (1994-03-22). Interview with Robin Hughes. Australian Biography. 
  5. ^ a b c Tickner, Robert (2001). Taking a stand land rights to reconciliation: Land Rights to Reconciliation. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1865080519. 
  6. ^ Barrett, Rebecca (23 February 2001). "Stolen generation debate re-ignited". The World Today. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Local Radio). http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/stories/s250904.htm. Retrieved 31 December 2008. 
  7. ^ http://dl.nfsa.gov.au/clip/odonrem/
  8. ^ http://dl.nfsa.gov.au/clip/odonreu/
  9. ^ "O'Donoghue, Lois - AM". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/honour_roll/search.cfm?aus_award_id=872333&search_type=simple&showInd=true. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  10. ^ Lewis, Wendy (2010). Australians of the Year. Pier 9 Press. ISBN 9781741968095. 
  11. ^ "O'Donoghue, Lowitja (Lois) - CBE". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/honour_roll/search.cfm?aus_award_id=1065477&search_type=simple&showInd=true. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  12. ^ "Australians of the year - 1984". National Australia Day Committee. http://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/pages/page81.asp. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  13. ^ "O'Donoghue, Lowitja (Lois) - AC". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/honours/honour_roll/search.cfm?aus_award_id=874034&search_type=simple&showInd=true. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  14. ^ "Biography at Hawke Centre". University of South Australia. http://www.unisa.edu.au/hawkecentre/patrons/ODonoghue.asp. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  15. ^ "Recipients of the AOC Olympic Order". Australian Olympic Committee. http://corporate.olympics.com.au/index.cfm?p=53. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  16. ^ "Profile: Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue, AC, CBE, DSG". Citizens Parliament. http://citizensparliament.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=70:lowitja&catid=29:people&Itemid=80. 

External links

Preceded by
Robert de Castella
Australian of the Year Award
Succeeded by
Paul Hogan

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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