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Lowitja O’Donoghue was born in 1932 at Indulkana, in the remote north-west corner of South Australia, to a Pitjantjatjara mother and an Irish father. When she was just two years old, she and two of her sisters were taken away from their mother by missionaries on behalf of South Australia’s Aboriginal Protection Board.
Renamed ‘Lois’ by the missionaries, she and her sisters grew up at Colebrook Children’s Home and did not see their mother again for more than thirty years. They weren’t allowed to speak their own language or to ask questions about their origins or even about their parents.
Dr O’Donoghue attended Unley General Technical High School in Adelaide and set her sights on becoming a nurse. But, after initial training, she was refused entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to continue her studies because she was Aboriginal. She fought the decision—thus beginning her lifelong advocacy for Aboriginal rights—and in 1954 became the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the hospital. Dr O’Donoghue graduated and became a charge sister at the hospital, where she stayed for ten years.
After spending time in the mid-1960s at the Baptists Overseas Mission in Assam, India, Dr O'Donoghue returned to Australia and joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She accepted a position in the remote South Australian town of Coober Pedy where an aunt and uncle, noticing the family resemblance, recognised her in a local supermarket. Through this chance meeting she was finally reunited with her mother, Lily, who by this time was living in the nearby town of Oodnadatta.
From 1970-72, Dr O'Donoghue was a member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, and later became Regional Director of the Australian Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1976, she became the first Aboriginal woman to be awarded an Order of Australia (AO), and a year later was appointed the foundation Chair of the National Aboriginal Conference and Chair of the Aboriginal Development Commission.
In March 1990, Dr O'Donoghue was appointed the founding Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC); during this time she played a key role in drafting the Native Title legislation that arose from the High Court's historic Mabo decision.
When she stepped down from this role, Dr O'Donoghue became the inaugural Chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health (1996-2003), which led to the CRC for Aboriginal Health (2003-09), the CRC for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, and the Lowitja Institute Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health CRC (2014-19). The Lowitja Institute was established in January 2010 and it currently hosts the CRC organisation.
Dr O'Donoghue has received numerous awards and accolades for her work. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1983 and Australian of the Year in 1984, during which time she became the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly. She won the Advance Australia Award in 1982, was named a National Living Treasure in 1998, and awarded Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1999 and Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great (DSG), a Papal Award, in 2005.
An Honorary Fellow of both the Royal Australian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing, Dr O'Donoghue also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the Australian National University and Notre Dame University, and an Honorary Doctorate from Flinders University, Australian National University, University of South Australia and Queensland University of Technology. She has also been a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University since 2000.
When Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue agreed to have the Lowitja Institute named after her, she entrusted in the organisation her spirit and energy, her values and priorities. Dr O’Donoghue told the Institute to be a courageous organisation committed to social justice and equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to match words to action, to achieve real tangible and immediate outcomes. Also, to be known throughout Australia as a strong and sustainable organisation working fearlessly for change and improvement in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Banner image: Detail from Robert Hannaford's 2006 portrait Lowitja O'Donoghue which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), Canberra; authorised copy hangs in the foyer of the Lowitja Institute. Original is oil on canvas, 159.7 x 159.7 cm, purchased by the NPG with funds donated by BHP Billiton Ltd, Rio Tinto Aboriginal FUnd, Newmont Australia Ltd, Reconciliation Austra, Hon Paul Keating and Hon Fred Chaney 2006.