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. Aboriginal girls brought up in the missions were trained in domestic service with the expectation that at age 16 they would seek employment as domestics.
O’Donoghue’s work on behalf of Aboriginal rights began in the early 1950s when she tried to extend her qualifications after working as a nursing aide at the local hospital.. She applied to complete her training at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, but was refused the opportunity because she was Aboriginal. She fought the decision, which was eventually overturned and she became the first Aboriginal person to train as a nurse at the hospital. She had by then joined the Aboriginal Advancement League, to advocate on behalf of other Aborigines and specifically to ensure employment options other than domestic work for women and manual labour for men could be available to them.
Lowitja O’Donoghue’s leadership in Aboriginal rights has been highly influential. A member of the stolen generation, she has also been an advocate of reconciliation and avoided politics of confrontation, finding conciliation to be more effective.
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.