Feb 05, 2024

Indigenous advocate, SA’s first Aboriginal nurse Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue dies

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Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue was originally denied training as a nurse because of her heritage, sparking her lifelong advocacy mission and achievements. [Source: X - Leanne King]

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised this story includes images of an Indigenous person who has died.

Esteemed Indigenous rights activist and the first Aboriginal person to train as a nurse at South Australia’s Royal Adelaide Hospital, Doctor Lowitja O’Donoghue, has died aged 91.

A valuable political consult for both the 1967 referendum and the Apology to the Stolen Generation, the Yankunytatjara leader was honoured in a statement from her family who confirmed she had passed away peacefully, surrounded by her immediate family, on Kaurna country in Adelaide on Sunday.

“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,” it read.

“She was admired and respected universally, sought after to meet with dignitaries of the highest standing from all over the world, whilst being equally as loved in her own nation.

The former Australian of the Year was born to an Aboriginal mother and pastoralist father at De Rose Hill in South Australia’s APY Lands before being taken away to a children’s home at just two years old along with her two other sisters. 

SA’s first Aboriginal nurse

During her time at the children’s home, Dr O’Donoghue was trained to be a domestic worker which led to a nursing aide job at the Victor Harbor hospital.

Dr O’Donoghue’s plight for equality began early in her career and she rose to notoriety after successfully lobbying to become the first Aboriginal person to train as a nurse at Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) in 1954, after initially being denied due to her Aboriginality. 

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Dr O'Donoghue’s at the RAH. [Source: ABC News]

“The matron … stood me up in the corridor outside her office and just told me very bluntly that I should go to Alice Springs and nurse my own people,” she told the National Film and Sound Archive in 1994.

With support from then-Premier Sir Thomas Playford, the decision was overturned and Dr O’Donoghue became South Australia’s first Aboriginal nurse and stayed in the profession for a decade, spending time in India with the Baptist Overseas Mission. 

A large legacy left for all

After a decade in nursing, Dr O’Donoghue was a welfare officer for South Australia’s Department of Aboriginal Affairs, kickstarting a long career in the public service sector. 

She campaigned for the 1967 referendum which changed the constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the population and make laws for them. Dr O’Donoghue’s advocacy saw her made a member of the Order of Australia in 1977 before continuing as the founding chairperson of the National Aboriginal Conference (NAC).

In 1984 she was named Australian of the Year and became the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission four years later – a Commission that replaced NAC.

The 90s saw Dr O’Donoghue lobby the Keating Federal Government to recognise Aboriginal land ownership through the Native Title Act and the 00s brought an opportunity to advise then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – particularly those of the Stolen Generations – in 2008.

She received a plethora of other accolades for her work including a papal honour from Pope John Paul II, a NAIDOC lifetime achievement award and seven honorary doctorates.

Just two years ago, the non-profit Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation was set up to continue her legacy.

Paying tributes to the late trailblazer

In a tribute, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese honoured Dr O’Donoghue’s faith in the possibility of a more united and reconciled Australia despite years of discrimination. 

“Throughout her time in this world, Dr O’Donoghue walked tall – and her example and inspiration made us all walk taller,” he wrote in a statement posted on X.

“Dr O’Donoghue was a figure of grace, moral clarity, and extraordinary inner strength.” 

South Australia’s Premier Peter Malinauskas said SA mourns the loss of a “truly great South Australian” who will be offered a State funeral in recognition of her “incredible service”.

“We remember Dr O’Donoghue as a strong, fearless woman, who engaged with politics and with institutions at a time when Aboriginal women were under-recognised and under-represented in national leadership,” the organisation wrote in a statement. 

“Her life impacted all of us – black and white – and her spirit, energy and dedication live on.”

Her legacy continues through the Lowitja Institute, a health research body, the Lowitja O’Donoghue Foundation and the annual Lowitja O’Donoghue Orations at the University of Adelaide.

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