Life On The Job

Indigenous Famous or Historic People

Dr Lowitja [Lois] O'Donoghue AM, CBE, DSG (1 August 1932 - 4 February 2024)
Nurse, Australian Public Administrator, Indigenous Rights Advocate

Portrait Lowitja O'Donoghue
(Source: Wikipedia)


Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue AM CBE was born in 1932 at Indulkana in South Australia of Pitjantjatjara and Irish descent. She was born Lois O'Donoghue and is an Aboriginal Australian retired public administrator.

She was Australian of the Year in 1984, the first and only Aboriginal Australian to address the UN General Assembly, for seven years the most senior Aboriginal person in public office and a delegate to Australia’s 1998 Constitutional Republic Convention.

Following her retirement, she formally added the name "Lowitja" to her existing legal name, Lois O'Donoghue Smart, to emphasise her Luritjan heritage.

O'Donoghue was the inaugural patron and namesake of the Lowitja Institute, a research institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing established in 2010, which in 2022 established the Lowitja O'Donoghue Foundation.


Early Life

When she was two years old, she and two of her sisters were taken away from their mother by missionaries on behalf of the Aboriginal Protection Board. The girls grew up at Colebrook Children’s Home and did not see their mother again for over 30 years.

At the home, her Aboriginal name, Lowitja, was changed to ‘Lois’. She wasn’t allowed to speak her own language or to ask questions about her origins or about her parents. The home became her family. She remembers Colebrook as ‘a very spartan place’ run by two maiden missionary ladies.



She attended Unley General Technical High School before starting training as a nurse in a small coastal hospital in South Australia.

After initial training, she was refused entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to continue her studies, because she was Aboriginal. This led to her active involvement with the Aboriginal Advancement League, joining with other Aboriginal people, trade unions and churches to agitate for the rights of Aboriginal people to enter professions and take up apprenticeships. She fought the decision and in 1954 became the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the Royal Adelaide. She graduated and became a Charge Sister at the hospital, where she stayed for ten years.


From 1950–53 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. After a long struggle to win admission to a training hospital, she became the first Aboriginal nurse in South Australia.

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, she 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 until 1961, being appointed a charge nurse just before leaving.

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.


Did You Know?Listen

Lowitja O'Donoghue's Life
ABC Late Night Live - 20 mins audio file

Broadcast Tue 3 Nov 2020 at 10:40pm

Lowitja with Kevin Rudd
Prominent Australian Aborigine Lowitja O'Donoghue, left, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd talk after Rudd delivered an official apology, at Parliament House in Canberra, Feb. 13, 2008, to its indigenous people for past treatment that "inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss."
 (Gary Ramage/Pool Photo via AP, File)

In 1975 she became the director of the South Australian region of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. Two years later, she was a founding member of the National Aboriginal Conference. Lowitja O’Donoghue was named Australian of the Year in 1985 in recognition of ‘her enormous personal contribution in bridging the cultural gap between Aboriginal people and the rest of the Australian Community’. She believed the award highlighted the fight for Aboriginal equality:

We are all here now and we have to solve our differences and live together as Australians.

She concluded her acceptance speech by saying:

I will use the title you have honoured me with to bring Australian people together. Together we can build a remarkable country, the envy of the rest of the world.

In 1990 she was appointed as inaugural chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), advising government on policy and managing a budget of a billion dollars a year - a position she held until 1996. O’Donoghue played a key role in major policy initiatives that followed, including the formation of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, legislation on Native Title and the framing of a comprehensive social justice package. On Reconciliation she said:

We have a long way to go but there is no turning back. For indigenous Australians, the acid test of reconciliation will be improved health, better housing, education and employment. Reconciliation is the way of the future, our shared future in which Australia is united as one people with many rich cultures and a commitment to justice and equity.

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.

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

At work
Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue worked at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs during the 1970s
(Source: ABC News)

Opportunities & Experiences

In the mid 1960s Lois went to Assam in India to work with the Baptist Overseas Mission. She returned to Australia and after the Referendum in 1967 which recognised Aboriginal people as full and equal citizens joined the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. She accepted a position in Coober Pedy where an aunt and uncle, noticing the family resemblance, recognised her in a local supermarket. They told her that her mother, Lily, was at Oodnadatta. They sent word to her mother that Lois would visit her.

Work delayed Lois for three months. Every day for those three months her mother stood on the road, from dawn to dusk, waiting for her. When Lois and her older sister, Eileen, finally made the trip, their mother was too ashamed of her living conditions to welcome them into her ‘humpy’. They stayed at a hotel. Even more tragically, they could not communicate in their language, Pitjantjatjara, without an interpreter.


In 1979, she married Gordon Smart, a medical orderly at the Adelaide Repatriation Hospital whom she had first met in 1964; he died in 1991. They had no children.

Lowitja O'Donoghue at her 1979 wedding to Gordon Smart
(Source: The Guardian)


Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue has received many accolades. As well as being Australian of the Year in 1984, she was named a National Living Treasure in 1998, won the Advance Australia award in 1982, was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 1977, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1983, and a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1999.

She was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Australian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Nursing. She also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the Australian National and Notre Dame Universities, and is a Doctor of Flinders University, the ANU, the University of South Australia and Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has been a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University since 2000.

In summary:

  •  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.

  •  Lowitja O'Donoghue was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1983, and was named Australian of the Year 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) on 26 January 1999.

  •  O'Donoghue 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 and was inducted into the Olympic Order in 2000.

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


bullet.gif (981 bytes) The Conversation 6 February 2024

The Conversation

bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Conversation 5 February 2024

The Conversation
bullet.gif (981 bytes)The Lowitja Institute

Lowitja Institute
bullet.gif (981 bytes)The National Portrait Gallery


bullet.gif (981 bytes)Obituaries Australia


bullet.gif (981 bytes)State Library of SA

Other resources:

* ABC News - 5 February 2024
* Australian of the Year - 1984
* Britannica

* Wikipedia
* SBS News - 4 February 2024
* National Library of Australia - Papers of Lowitja O'Donoghue, 1940 - 2013
* Prime Minister of Australia - 4 February 2024
* The Guardian - 4 February 2024

* National Archives of Australia
* Web Archive - Univ of Melbourne PDF
* Student Union - Uni of Melb - Book Review
* National Film & Sound Archive of Australia - Australia Biography _ Women

bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Portrait Story | Lowitja O'Donoghue by Robert Hannaford

bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG Tribute Video

bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Indigenous trailblazer Lowitja O'Donoghue dies aged 91 | 7.30 ABC

bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube: Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue. Australian Biography 3. (27 mins) National Film and Sound Archive

bullet.gif (981 bytes)YouTube:
Indigenous Leader Dr Lowitja O'Donoghue Dies Aged 91


bullet.gif (981 bytes)"As a young woman, Lowitja O'Donoghue was told she'd amount to nothing" - a Community of Inquiry

 MiddleMiddle High SchoolSecondary

CriticalAustralian Curriculum General Capability: Critical and creative thinking
Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Literacy

Ethical Understanding Australian Curriculum General Capability: Ethical Understanding

IndigenousAustralian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures


Cooperative LearningCooperative Learning Activity


The information about how to conduct a Community of Inquiry is here. It is very important that you, as the teacher, follow the procedures to gain the most out of this lesson.

You will need to photocopy this Word document taken directly from the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2020 and written by Prof. Robert Manne, so there are enough copies for 2 - 3 students to share.

Time: 2 - 3 Lessons of 45 mins each

Subjects targeted: Social Studies, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Ethics

Local copy of stimulus material: SMH 9 October 2020: "As a young woman, Lowitja O'Donoghue was told she'd amount to nothing"




1. As a whole class, you are to create a circle including your teacher. You are going to conduct a Community of Inquiry using the following article from the SMH by Professor Robert Manne on 9 October 2020 - 3 years and a couple of months before Lowitja's death in February 2024.

2. Take it in turns to read one paragraph of this local copy of the SMH article: Word Document.

3. In pairs, consider the stimulus material (SMH article) and write two questions in each quadrant.

Question Quadrant

4. List all the questions on a board from the 4th Quadrant "Questions for Thinking" and put your names next to your questions.

5. You are to group the questions - the ones that are the same or similar - together - as a class.

7. Start the discussion with the most asked question.

8. Make sure you follow the rules of Philosophy in Schools:

  • Only one person speaks at a time
  • Pay attention to the person who is speaking
  • Give other people a chance to speak
  • Build upon other people's ideas
  • No put-downs
    (Source: Associate Prof. Phil Cam)

9. Here are some outlines for you as students to be involve in critical, creative and caring thinking:

Critical Creative Caring
give reasons
consider implications
apply criteria
weigh evidence
generate questions
raise suggestions
imagine alternatives
formulate criteria
make connections
build on ideas
listen to other's points of view
consider other's reasons
explore disagreements considerately
build on other's ideas
explore other's opinions
help to synthesise suggestions


bullet.gif (981 bytes)Who is with Lowitja O'Donoghue?

PrimaryPrimary MiddleMiddle High SchoolSecondary

Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Personal and social capability
Australian Curriculum General Capability: Literacy

IndigenousAustralian Curriculum Cross Curriculum Priorities: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures

Cooperative LearningCooperative Learning Activity

1. In a group of 3 - 4 students, you are to view, frame by frame, the following video and name as many VIP people within the frame with Lowitja.

2. YouTube: Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG Tribute Video

3. Create a list of people, their role eg. PM, and the frame within this video where they can be seen.

4. Compare with another group of students.

5. Within your group and your comparison group, select one VIP (very important person) and state why they are important in relation to Lowitja.


Material sourced from
Australian of the Year
City News
National Archives of Australia
Racism No Way

South Australia State Library
University of Melbourne Student Union


Not available websites now that had information about Lowitja:
Stolen Generations

Web Archive - Melbourne University

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