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Outpouring of love, respect and admiration for Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, and her incredible legacy

*** Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are cautioned that this post mentions and contains images of people who have passed ***

On Sunday, 4 February, Yankunytjatjara woman Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, aged 91, died peacefully on Kaurna Country in Adelaide, South Australia with her immediate family by her side.

In the avalanche of tributes that have since flowed from health and human rights leaders, and others, Dr O’Donoghue has been described as:

one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known

one of the most respected and influential Aboriginal leaders this country has ever known

a visionary leader whose intellect, thoughtfulness and humility shone through

fearless in her pursuit of justice, advocacy and health

determined, strong, thoughtful and deeply compassionate

a warrior for justice

having an unwavering commitment to improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

as having legendary courage, dignity and grace as well as wisdom and generosity of spirit, and

truly one of a kind.

A formidable leader

In a family statement, her niece, Deb Edwards, spokesperson for O’Donoghue family and Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation, said:

“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.

“We thank her for being a formidable leader who was never afraid to listen, speak and act. Always with strength, determination, grace, and dignity.

“We ask that you continue to honour Aunty Lowitja’s legacy through using your Voices to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to share the stories of her incredible life, which always had our First Peoples at the heart of all that she worked for and achieved.”

In a statement, the Lowitja Institute acknowledged the passing of their co-patron and namesake, and provided an overview of her life and work:

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue  was born in 1932 in the remote north-west corner of South Australia and was removed from her mother at just two years old. Lowitja and her siblings grew up at Colebrook Children’s Home at Quorn, South Australia.

They weren’t allowed to speak their own language or to ask questions about their origins or even about their parents. The missionaries gave Lowitja the name, Lois. Lowitja did not see her mother again for more than 30 years, until reunited with her in 1967 at Oodnadatta.

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue’s dedication to health and wellbeing began at a young age when she moved from domestic work to becoming the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1954. She fought discrimination throughout her training yet despite the challenges, graduated to soon become Charge sister at the hospital where she worked for approximately ten years.

Travelling abroad and nursing in India as part of a Baptist mission also gave Dr O’Donoghue a broader perspective of the poor human rights experienced by Indigenous peoples and so ignited the flame to fight for justice. In the 1967 Referendum, she campaigned for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and soon after joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Dr O’Donoghue’s career spanned over two decades with many senior appointments in Aboriginal affairs in the public sector. Most notably, in 1990 Dr O’Donoghue was appointed the founding chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) where she played a key role in drafting the Native Title legislation that arose from the High Court’s historic Mabo decision.

As the inaugural chair of the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health (1996–2003), later to become the Lowitja Institute in 2010, Dr O’Donoghue worked tirelessly to reform Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research through ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and researchers were in the driving seat to influence better health outcomes.

Dr O’Donoghue inspired outstanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, working alongside patron and former Lowitja Institute chair Pat Anderson AO whom she described as “fearless and energetic”.

She received numerous awards and accolades for her work, including the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1983 and Australian of the Year in 1984, and became the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly. Dr O’Donoghue also holds two Honorary Fellows, nine Honorary Doctorates and a Professorial Fellow from various universities.

The statement said that when Dr O’Donoghue entrusted her name to the Lowitja Institute, “she told us to be a courageous organisation, committed to social justice and equity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to match words to action, and be known for working fearlessly for change and improvement in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

“We judge all our work through that lens.”

Prime Ministers

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating described working with Dr O’Donoghue on designing the Native Title Act, and her insight and courage in that process.

“Lowitja O’Donoghue served her people with high dedication and unremitting faith. Her death represents an unmitigated loss to her people and the Australian community at large,” he said.

In a statement, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described Dr O’Donoghue as one of the most remarkable leaders this country has ever known, and a figure of grace, moral clarity, and extraordinary inner strength.

“She was like a rock that stood firm in the storm – sometimes even staring down the storm. More than anything, she was of the great rocks around which the river of our history gently bent, persuaded to flow along a better course,” he said.

“With an unwavering instinct for justice and a profound desire to bring the country she loved closer together, Dr O’Donoghue was at the heart of some of the moments that carried Australia closer to the better future she knew was possible for us, among them the Apology to the Stolen Generation and the 1967 referendum. She provided courageous leadership during the Mabo debates and as chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.”

Also see statements by the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, NACCHO, University of Sydney, ANMF, and SAHMRI – and more are referenced in the compilation of tributes below.


Life of service

The photographs below are provided courtesy of Lowitja Institute.


Selection of tributes

Donations to the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation can be made here.


Read more about the Lowitja Institute’s work, and also see The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue, by Stuart Rintoul