Australian of the Year Lois O’Donoghue first Aboriginal Australian to address the UN

 

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue, a Yunkunytjatjara woman, was born in 1932 to Tom and Lily O'Donoghue but, with two sisters, was removed two years later by the South Australian Aboriginal Protection Board and placed in the Colebrook Children's Home.

Like other Aboriginal girls raised in mission homes, O'Donoghue went to work as a domestic in Victor Harbor at 16. She was encouraged to work as a nursing aide at the local hospital.

After attending Unley General Technical High School, she was refused nurse training in the 1950s, at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. She fought the decision and became the first Aboriginal nurse at the hospital.

She had by then joined the Aboriginal Advancement League, to advocate on behalf of other Aborigines and specifically to ensure wider employment options.    
O'Donoghue worked at the Royal Adelaide Hospital for another 10 years and became a charge sister. In the 1960s, she travelled to India to nurse with the Baptist Overseas Mission. She realised Australian Aborigines “weren't the only people that had been colonised and …  dispossessed”.

Back in South Australia, she joined the public service, working as an Aboriginal liaison officer and a welfare officer at Coober Pedy where, by chance, she was reunited her mother after 30 years.

After the 1967 referendum, she transferred to the federal Aboriginal department's Adelaide office. From 1975-79, she was the first female regional director of a federal department.

She chaired Aboriginal Hostels Limited and the Aboriginal Development Commission, was a chairperson of the National Aboriginal Congress in the 1980s, and foundation chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1990-96).

O’Donoghue has received numerous awards and accolades, including Australian of the Year in 1984, when she became the first Aboriginal person to address the United Nations General Assembly.

She received the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and was declared an Australian National Living Treasure in 1998.

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