Born 1 August 1932 De Rose Hill (APY Lands), South Australia.

(Lowitja’s birth was not registered, her approximate birth date and birthplace were given by missionaries Ruby Hyde and Delia Rutter).

Mother Lily Woodforde (Yankunytjatjara/Pitjantjatjara), died 1979.

Father Thomas O’Donoghue (Irish), died 1960.


September 1934 – Aged two, Lowitja is removed from her mother Lily, along with her older sisters Violet and Amy, and is taken to a United Aborigines Mission home, ‘Colebrook Children’s Home’ at Quorn in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Lowitja’s two elder siblings Eileen and Geoffrey had already been placed at Colebrook Home in 1926, eight years earlier.

1938 – 1943

Attended Quorn Primary School, South Australia.

1943 1945

Moved from Quorn to United Aborigines Mission’s new Colebrook Home at Eden Hills, Adelaide. Attended primary school at Eden Hills, completing Grade 7 in 1944 and received her Certificate in 1945.


Attended Unley Girls Technical High School, South Australia, received her Intermediate Leaving Certificate in 1948.

1948 – 1949

Lowitja leaves Colebrook Home on her 17th birthday and moves to Waitpinga, South Australia to work as a domestic servant for the Swincer family, caring for their children.

1950 1953

At 18 years old, Lowitja commences as a trainee nurse at the South Coast District Hospital in Victor Harbor, South Australia. She completes her training in June 1952.


Lowitja joins the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League and lobbies then South Australian Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, for his support to be given the opportunity to train at the Royal Adelaide Hospital as a nurse.


January 1954 – Twenty-two-year-old Lowitja enters the Royal Adelaide Hospital in Adelaide, South Australia as the first Aboriginal trainee nurse.           

1958 – 1961

In 1958, Lowitja completes her training and receives her nurse’s certificate. In 1959, she is promoted to Charge Sister at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Lowitja resigns from the hospital in December 1961.


February 1962 – Lowitja travels to Assam, India to work for the Australian Baptist Missionary Society as a missionary relief nurse. She is believed to be the first Aboriginal person to travel abroad in such a capacity. In December 1962, Lowitja returns to Adelaide having been quickly evacuated due to Communist China’s advance into India.

Lowitja commences work at the Repatriation Hospital in Belair, South Australia, where she meets her future husband Gordon Plumer Smart for the first time.


Lowitja joins the Aboriginal Progress Association in South Australia.


The late Mrs Gladys Elphick MBE forms the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia with co-founders Lowitja O’Donoghue (Secretary) and the late Maude Tongerie AM.

1967 1972

Lowitja commences work as a nurse/welfare officer for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, South Australia working at Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, the APY Lands and Point McLeay.

She actively campaigns for the 1967 Referendum which was successful in changing the Australian Constitution for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted as part of the population, and for the Commonwealth to make laws for them.


At the age of 35, and after 33 years of separation, Lowitja meets her mother Lily at Oodnadatta, South Australia. It is a bittersweet meeting as Lily does not speak English and Lowitja does not speak Yankunytjatjara. They spend five days together along with oldest sister Eileen who has accompanied Lowitja. In the years that follow, Lily travels south on the train to Adelaide and meets her other three children, and her grandchildren.


Lowitja transfers from the South Australian branch of the Department for Aboriginal Affairs to a Federal role as senior liaison officer, Canberra, and Adelaide.

1973 – 1976

Lowitja joins the newly formed National Aboriginal Consultative Committee (NACC).


Promoted to regional director for the South Australian branch of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (the first Aboriginal person to be promoted to this level).


Appointed as board director, Aboriginal Hostels Limited.

Lowitja resigns from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs over continued frustrations with the bureaucracy in Canberra.

Lowitja is invested as Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the Aboriginal community – the first Aboriginal woman to be inducted into the new Australian honours system.


Lowitja is appointed the founding chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC).


Lowitja marries Gordon Plumer Smart on 5 January at Pichi Richi Pass in Quorn, South Australia.

Lowitja’s mother Lily Woodforde dies on 17 October at Port Augusta Hospital, South Australia.

She is buried in the sandhills of Oodnadatta.


Appointed as board director, Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC).

1981 – 1989

Appointed as Chairperson, Aboriginal Hostels Limited Board (resigned as Chair when appointed to ATSIC however remained as a Board Director until 1996).


Lowitja is invested as Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for service to the Aboriginal community.


Lowitja is announced as Australian of the Year by Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen opens Lois O’Donoghue Hostel at Port Augusta, South Australia.

1989 1990

Appointed as the final chairperson, Aboriginal Development Commission (ADC).

1990 1996

Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gerry Hand announces Lowitja as the inaugural Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). ATSIC was the Australian Government body (under the Hawke Government) through which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were formally involved in the processes of government affecting their lives.


Lowitja’s husband Gordon Smart dies on 27 June of a heart attack at Quorn, South Australia.


Lowitja becomes the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the launch of the International Year for the World’s Indigenous People.


The Keating Government pass the historic Native Title Act and Lowitja is widely commended for her leadership in spearheading the lengthy and difficult negotiations with the Commonwealth. Keating later calls Lowitja ‘a remarkable Australian leader.’


Lowitja retires as chairperson of ATSIC in December and is replaced by Gatjil Djerrkura.

She delivers a final address to the National Press Club in Canberra in January of the following year.

Lowitja is discussed as a possible contender as Australia’s next Governor-General to replace Bill Hayden.

Lowitja is appointed inaugural chairperson of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health.


At the last Colebrook Home in Eden Hills, Adelaide, Lowitja unveils a bronze statue, Fountain of Tears, recognising the ‘tjitji tjuta’ – the Colebrook children.


Lowitja is declared an Australian National Living Treasure.

1998 – 2000

Appointed as chairperson, National Indigenous Advisory Committee of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

Lowitja becomes Patron of the National Sorry Day Committee.


Lowitja is invested as Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for public service through leadership to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the areas of human rights and social justice, particularly as Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Lowitja is part of a delegation of five pro-republic Aboriginal leaders who travel to the United Kingdom and meet with the late Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on 13 October.


June 2000 – The Sydney Olympics torch relay commences from Uluru in the centre of Australia, Lowitja is torch bearer ‘Number 11’ and proudly carries the Olympic flame on Anangu country.

Lowitja is invested as a Member of the Olympic Order for service to the National Indigenous Advisory Committee of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).

Lowitja is appointed Professional Fellow of Flinders University, South Australia.


Martin Luther King III, son of legendary civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jnr visits Australia on a charity fundraising tour during National Reconciliation Week. Lowitja works closely with him throughout the tour which aims to aid funding of community education and development of Indigenous leadership.


Lowitja is appointed Advisor to then Premier of South Australia Mike Rann, on matters relating to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands.


Lowitja is invested as Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great (DSG), a Papal Honour by Pope John Paul II.

Renowned South Australian artist Robert Hannaford paints Lowitja’s portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.


The inaugural Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration, presented by the Don Dunstan Foundation, takes place at University of Adelaide’s Bonython Hall, with Lowitja as the Orator on the theme, Black and White Together, We Shall Overcome Some Day.


13 February Prime Minister Kevin Rudd makes a formal National Apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, particularly to the Stolen Generations, on behalf of the nation at Australian Parliament House. Prime Minister Rudd had sought Lowitja’s counsel in preparation for the Apology and she is among a group of Aboriginal people invited to sit in the House to witness this historic moment.

May 2008 – At St Peter’s Anglican Cathedral in Adelaide, Lowitja announces her retirement from public life.


Lowitja is honoured with the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award.


January – Lowitja Institute is established as Australia’s only national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research institute. Lowitja agrees to have Lowitja Institute named after her, and entrusts her spirit and energy, her values and priorities to the organisation.


Making a welcome return to public speaking, Lowitja opens the Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference in Melbourne, Victoria.


The authorised biography Lowitja, written by Stuart Rintoul, is published by Allen and Unwin.


1 August – Lowitja Institute proudly announces the formation of the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, in honour of this significant day, Lowitja’s 90th birthday. The Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation acknowledges, recognises, and preserves the extraordinary legacy of Dr O’Donoghue’s dedicated lifetime of work and creates opportunities for advancement and change.


Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue celebrated her 91st birthday on 1 August 2023.


Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, Yankunytjatjara woman, died peacefully aged 91 on 4 February 2024.

Awards and honours

  • 1982 Advance Australia Award
  • 1992 SA Great Award
  • 1993 Honorary Doctorate: Murdoch University, Western Australia
  • 1993 Honorary Doctorate: University of South Australia
  • 1995 Honorary Doctorate: Australia National University, ACT
  • 1995 Honorary Fellowship: Royal College of Nursing, Australia
  • 1996 Honorary Doctorate: Queensland University of Technology, Queensland
  • 1996 Honorary Doctorate: Flinders University, South Australia
  • 1998 Honorary Fellowship: Royal Australasian College of Physicians
  • 2000 Honorary Professorial Fellow: Flinders University, South Australia
  • 2001 Honorary Doctorate: Notre Dame University, Broome, Western Australia
  • 2003 Honorary Doctorate: Melbourne University, Victoria
  • 2003 Centenary Medal
  • 2005 South Australian Nursing and Midwifery Recognition Award, Government of South Australia
  • 2014 Honorary Doctorate: The University of Sydney, New South Wales
  • 2021 Honorary Doctorate: The University of Adelaide, South Australia
  • 2022 Perpetual Lifetime Achievement Award, Gladys Elphick Awards

Patronage (current)

  • Patron: Lowitja Institute
  • Patron: Don Dunstan Foundation
  • Patron: Congress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM)
  • Patron: Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, University of South Australia
  • Patron: Reconciliation South Australia

Committees, boards and professional organisations (past)

  • Member: Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation
  • Member: Indigenous Land Corporation
  • Board Member: National Australia Day Council
  • Board Member: Order of Australia Council
  • Board Member: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  • Chairperson, Outback Areas Community Development Trust

As a national organisation, we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land across Australia and pay our respects to their Elders past and present. Our offices are located on the lands of the Wurundjeri people.