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SA Legend, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue dies aged 91

Abbie Tiller

Legendary South Australia leader, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, has died aged 91

History will regard Dr O’Donoghue as a pre-eminent and persistent force in improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

She helped deliver significant outcomes in health, education, political representation, land rights and reconciliation.

Born at Indulkana on the APY Lands in 1932, Dr O’Donoghue was separated from her family at an early age and put in the care of missionaries at Colebrook Children’s home at Quorn. She did not see her mother again for 33 years.

In 1954, the young Yankunytjatjara woman became the first Aboriginal nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, progressing to the position of Charge Sister, in spite of ongoing experiences of racism.

She later joined the South Australian branch of the Federal Office of Aboriginal Affairs, and served as a member of the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, before being appointed to the position of Regional Director of the SA Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

In 1990, her leadership in Aboriginal Affairs saw Dr O’Donoghue appointed as the inaugural chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, where she played a pivotal role in the tense and complex negotiations which enabled then Prime Minister Paul Keating’s native title legislation.

In 2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sought Dr O’Donoghue’s counsel on his historic Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Dr O’Donoghue’s leadership, tenacity and compassion saw her receive numerous accolades. She was appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 1977, won the Advance Australia award in 1982, was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1983, was named Australian of the Year in 1984 and became a National Living Treasure in 1998.

Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research is named in her honour.

“We mourn the loss of a truly great South Australian,” said Premier Peter Malinauskas

“Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue dedicated her life to the service of others, and leaves a proud legacy of improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Australia.

Determined, strong, thoughtful and deeply compassionate, Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue leaves a substantial legacy, that will continue to be felt by future generations.

On behalf of all South Australians, I extend my sympathies to Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue’s family, friends, and associates.

At the appropriate moment, I’ll be reaching out to the family with the offer of a State Funeral, in recognition of Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue’s incredible service.”

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Kyam Maher said “In honouring Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue’s memory, may we be inspired by the countless positive changes she contributed over her life. We recognise the profound impact she had on the country and the many lives she touched. Her legacy will forever stand as a testament to the influence of her relentless dedication and service.

Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue’s leadership was not just about strength and determination; she led with a presence that inspired others to rise. Her legacy as a leader of both conviction and compassion will continue to inspire generations to come.

For those that knew Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, understood that below her steely resolve was a tremendous amount of generosity, warmth, and kindness. So often she provided comfort for those who needed it.

In this difficult time, our hearts go out to Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue’s family, friends, and the wider community who share in the weight of this significant loss. We find solace in celebrating a life that brought joy, inspiration, and lasting change.”


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