Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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So an Aboriginal activist was born. How did you get on?

Well, I had my discussions of course with Tom Playford, but I don't think he took up the cause because really I had a long way to go at that stage. That's when I decided, of course, that in this third year at Victor Harbour, that all my days off would be spent in travelling to Adelaide. I joined the Aborigines' Advancement League, which was really the only organisation and it wasn't an Aboriginal organisation as we know it today. It was an organisation of interested Aboriginal people and the people that come to mind was Doctor and Mrs. Duguid [?] ... Charles Duguid, who was a great fighter for the Aboriginal cause. There were members of churches and unions who belonged to the Aborigines' Advancement League and a very few Aboriginal people and most of those were former Colebrook children. So I joined that ... that League and I travelled to Adelaide every week to get involved in the organisation and I'd resolved that one of the fights was to actually open the door for Aboriginal women to take up the nursing profession, and also for those young men to get into apprenticeships. So we had two main causes really at that time and I became one of the people involved in that struggle at that time.

Now what happened? Did ... How did it work? Did some of the influential white people, who were involved in it do, most of the lobbying for you?

Well they did. They wrote letters and eventually in the ... not in the third year at Victor Harbour. I left after twelve months, the extension of the twelve months at Victor Harbour because it was just getting too difficult and too expensive to travel every week from Victor Harbour and I came to ... to Adelaide and there I went into private nursing. Once again I found myself, of course, I guess, in a private home, but once again with people who, in fact, were involved with the movement but through the church and I nursed their father, throughout that period of time. But I was actually in Adelaide. I was able to participate in the meetings of the Advancement League which finally, in that fourth year, culminated in a ... in a large rally in the Adelaide Town Hall, at which we had non-Aboriginal speakers and Aboriginal speakers. I wasn't, at this stage, one of the ... while I was active I wasn't one of the speakers as such. I mean most of the speaking I did, of course, in those times was making personal representation to members of parliament, personal representations to the matron at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, always being knocked back, and so I was part [of it] because we formed a choir for that night and we got massive publicity out of that. That was well, of course, reported on in the press, and it was really as a result of that ... that rally, that the matron at the Royal Adelaide Hospital wrote to me to say that ... that I could now start at the Royal Adelaide Hospita29

To finish your course?

Which is 1954 by this time. I started at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, hoping, of course, and I think, I'm pretty sure that in fact that I'd receive some assurance from the matron that I would receive some credit for the ... I couldn't receive, of course, more than two years credit because I would have been transferring after two years from the country hospital and I ... but I found myself back in preliminary training school at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which meant that I, in fact, was starting my nursing training all over again.

And this was only because you were Aboriginal?

Yes it was.

If you had been white, coming from that same country hospital, you would have been credited with two years?

Well I would have transferred of course after my two years, but of course by this time I'd ... I'd taken up the fight for four years. I'd been nursing four years by this time.

As a private nurse?

Well, no. One year as a private nurse.

Oh yes.

So I was three years at the South Coast District Hospital but I was always aware that only two years, of course ... I could only be given credit for two years. I understood that. But I found myself in preliminary training school. In those days, in fact, the ... the probationer nurse, who was coming in, was called a Black Pro and we made much of that in my time there that I said I was literally a Black Pro because I was an Aboriginal person, and that was because we wore black shoes and black stockings for the most part. So I went into preliminary training school which meant, of course, that I had three years training ahead of me. But I can't remember having ... having done a junior duty, of course, in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which I thought was most unfair from the point of view, and I used to make much of that, that I was a Black Pro and I ought not to be doing senior duties on the ward, and so on. But I found myself doing much, much more senior duties on the ward, and the matron, of course ... In those days, of course, the matron would do a daily round of the wards, choose a senior nurse to do a ward round with her, and part of the ... the requirement in doing a ward round with the matron was that you would give the patient's name, give the patients' diagnosis and give the patient's treatment, and the ward that I was assigned to, for my first ward, was a forty bed, male, medical ward. And because I was experienced, of course, I was able to go through the forty patients, naming them by name, giving their diagnosis and their treatment, and fortunately, for me, I didn't slip up at any stage. So you know ...

That was one in the eye to matron. Did she, do you think, regret her original decision?

Oh it was never noticeable to me. She was only at the hospital for another twelve months of my time, but she always chose on me, I think, you know, to attempt to bring me undone. But I was adamant and I made ... made sure from the first day, at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, that I was going to be the best nurse that that hospital had ever had and I worked hard at it, in more ways than one. I made sure that my shoes were shinier, my uniforms were whiter, and that I was always on time, and I did the best, best possible job. I resolved to do that and ... but, of course, after that first twelve months a new matron came on and ... and she, of course, was quite accepting of me. But the other thing that I need to say was that there were other Aboriginal nurses waiting in country hospitals, some of them having grown up with me, and we had resolved amongst each other that I would take the fight to gain entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and they would automatically transfer, which happened.

So you were the trailblazer?

Yes I was.

Now this resolve that you would do everything as well as you possible could, were you successful? Did you do well in your exams and did you do well on the wards as well as with your uniforms?

Yes I did. I did well on the reserves. And I felt, you know, that I was ... I always felt that I was a good nurse and was told so in later years as well. But I felt I did a good job. But in relation to the examinations, that was another matter altogether. Now, while I was much more mature, and I was ... I felt capable, all the time I was worried that if I failed that not only would ... not only would it be a problem for me, it would be problem for those who were to follow. So I remember, in fact, always having to be pushed I suppose, by the tutor, to take my examinations at the ... at the right time, but in fact myself delaying them somewhat, until I felt absolutely sure, because I really couldn't afford to fail.

That's a terrific responsibility to carry. Did that anxiety, do you think, make it harder for you to do well in the exams, if you were feeling anxious when you were doing them?

Yes, I think so, but I mean I didn't fail any of the examinations. But I'd have to say that I wasn't at the top of the class either. But in terms of the practical application, which ... we had, of course, the written theory part of the examination, but in terms of the practical applications, of course, I was ahead of others.

Did the patients like you?

Well they did later on. There were patients who were very ... there were some patients, of course, who weren't nice at all.

They didn't like being ...

... and didn't want in fact to have a so called black nurse. So there were a couple of those experiences. But for the most part I think I had more good experiences than bad experiences.

What would they say if they didn't want you to nurse them?

Well they'd tell you, just very straight about it. And, of course, I'd just report to the ... to the ward sister that that was the case and ...

They'd just say to you, 'I don't want you nursing me because you're black'?


How would you feel when they said that to you?

Well obviously, of course, very upset, but there was no point, of course, in labouring on the matter and I'd report very quickly to the ward sister that that was the case and she'd just sign another nurse to that particular patient.

Did it happen very often?

No it didn't. It happened on about three occasions.

Were you well accepted by all the other nurses?

Oh yes, yes. I have many good memories of ... well particularly of Victor Harbour, because we were all young, we all started together and we still have reunions. So I still keep in touch and, in fact, most of the reunions now revolve around my availability and in many instances, of course, I instigate them because I know that I don't get home very often, so we certainly have reunions. There are reunions of the Royal Adelaide Hospital but because there are many, many others to be taking into consideration, I don't have a lot of opportunity to meet those nurses from the Royal Adelaide Hospital. But I meet them from time to time in the course of my ... my work. I have over the years. And I've been back to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in 1984. During my year as 'Australian of the Year' I was invited to actually present the, the keynote address at the graduation and to present the certificates, and that was ... that was very exciting for me because I went back and by this time, of course, things had changed quite considerably and the ... by this time the theatrette and so on was actually ... and all the administration was now in what was the Nurses' Home in my time, and I excitedly went around saying, 'This is the room I slept in and this is what we did, you know, in these days', and so on. So it was good to go back but no, I had a very happy time and formed lots of friendship4

As you stood there as 'Australian of the Year', as a very much praised success story, did you think at all of the matron who wouldn't let you in?

No, I never gave her another thought. [Laughs] Really by this time I, you know ... I was on my way and I didn't think it was worth thinking back to those times.

With the families that you lived with, first when you were doing ... when you were a domestic help and then later as a private nurse, did they treat you exactly the same way, do you think, as they would have treated anybody who came into those jobs in their houses?

Yes, I think so.

So they accepted you entirely on your own merits?

Yes, I feel sure of that.

During those years that you were growing and learning and developing, did you have much experience, apart from the ones that you've described already ... did you have much experience of racism?

No, there was just the time when we shifted to the city to live and the entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and apart from that, no. Certainly not in the ... in my relationships with the ... with the staff at both Victor Harbour and the Royal Adelaide.

When you shifted to the city to live, you weren't accepted at the local school. Was that a decision that was actually made, or was it just the way in which the individuals there treated you?

No, it was a decision that was made by the Education Department.

Why did they make that decision?

They'd never had any experience I don't think of Aboriginal children before [Robin Hughes interrupts] and they did didn't know how to deal with it.

But they knew that you'd attended the local school at Quorn.

Yes, they knew that but I think that they had northern supervisors and people like that, so really the Adelaide administration didn't have a great deal of knowledge, I think, in terms of what went on in the ... in the country areas, and so on. But I mean it went on far too long for us to ... at times, of course, we thought it may have been to do with the fact that the school couldn't accommodate such a large group of children, such an influx of children, but it went on far too long for us to accept that that was reason for it.

Do you think it effected the quality of the education that you were given, that you weren't in the mainstream of education?

Oh yes, it certainly did. I mean the teachers we had of course weren't qualified. They were just volunteers from the Red Cross. Eventually of course the ... the headmistress that was assigned to the ... to the school at the Home was a qualified teacher, but the ... Sister Hyde also ... also gave some classes, very early in the peace, and she certainly wasn't at all experienced. So it was ... it was a very important time for me, you see, because it was Grade Six and Grade Seven and, you know, I was coming up for my Qualifying Certificate so really I think it certainly was a setback for me and those of my age group.

And something that came against you later, when you had to focus on study in other forms, that you didn't have that same grounding that you should have got at that time.

Yes, it wasn't that obvious because, I mean, certainly the grounding at the Quorn School was really very good and ... but I think that those two years certainly set me back a bit and I had to work much harder at it.

Did you feel that when you went to secondary school?

Yes I did. Yes I did.

And you think you didn't do as well at secondary school as you might have if you'd had a better education at that period.

Well I don't know that I really put it down to that. Can't remember sort of articulating that as being the real cause at the time, but I know that all of us, who were in that situation, have talked about, that in fact it was a really important stage of our education and our development. But on the other hand, I guess, I wasn't all that serious about my studies as well, and have seen the reports where in fact, I could have worked harder and I, you know ... I could have done my homework and stuff like that.

Now when you graduated as a nurse, did you stay on at the hospital?

Yes I did. The situation at the Royal Adelaide Hospital was that all nurses had planned to go on to do midwifery so we ... we were all, of course, on the waiting list for the midwifery hospital, which was the Queen Victoria in South Australia. However, if you were invited to stay as what was termed a charge ... not a charge sister - a junior nurse that was a staff nurse, and eventually become ... become a charge sister, well I mean, you never knocked it back because very few were invited to stay, because all they needed was to replace those that were retiring and so on. So I was ... I was invited to stay and I didn't go on and do my midwifery. I stayed on at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, became a junior sister, and within twelve months became a charge sister at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and stayed. So I was at the Royal Adelaide Hospital from 1954 to 1961.

Did you ever have any difficulty with junior nurses who came on and didn't want an Aboriginal sister to be telling them what to do?

No, I didn't. No, I didn't. In fact I do see girls. There's some here in Canberra, and other places, who contact me from time to time, who remember me on the ward as the charge sister and who've indicated at that time and even now, how privileged they were, because I was a real disciplinarian in those times.

You were a bit of a dragon?

Well, I don't know whether I was a dragon as such, but I was certainly a disciplinarian and, in fact, that's the way we were trained, and the beds had to ... you know, had to ... I mean they don't do it that way now, of course. Everything had to be in place. All the wheels turned in the one direction, and all the bedspreads on, you know, in a proper way. Nobody sitting on the beds, and so I was a ... I guess it was part of my training in the home, as well as my training in the Nurses' School, which I found, of course, not difficult at all. And ... and I guess I carried it on and I liked the regimentation, I suppose, of it all and didn't like the trend of nursing that emerged, of course, towards the end of my time at the Royal Adelaide Hospital because the nurse assistants or the nurse aids were ... were coming in at that time. I mean it was the trained nurse that was in charge of the wards. It was the trainee nurse that, in fact, was the practical nurse on the ward, but then the nurse assistant, the nurse aid, was coming in, which was another level and the ... the nurses who were, of course, in training were, in fact, coming to the point that they were not doing the ... the tasks on the ward that we performed and I ... I saw the patient care declining.

Now, that's strange that you should say that, because the whole idea of relieving nurses of the domestic work of the bed making and the routine things was so that patient care could be improved, because they could concentrate on that, and yet you disapproved of that.

Well I disapproved of it because in fact they then left everything to the ... to the nurse assistant and all the little things that patients looked for and so on, the trainee nurse was rather ignoring and saying, 'It's not our job any more. It's the job of the, you know ... the nurse assistant', and I didn't like that trend because I in fact had been brought up to be a ... a bedside nurse that attended to all the needs of the patient and ... and that was ... that was the way I liked it. And that's the way I wanted it to continue to be. And I just saw that while the trainee nurse was now the nurse who was going to give the treatment, but she wasn't going to, any longer, give that little extra that I think was required and that was attending to the comfort of the patient.

So what effect did this change have on you and your own career?

Well I ... I actually decided at that stage, I had the opportunity of going to India with the Australian Baptist Mission, not as a missionary, but as a relief nurse for those missionaries who hadn't been home on furlough, as they called it, for some ten years. And so I signed up to go out as a relief nurse to Assam, India, and I knew there that it was ... would be hands on, and it was the kind of nurse that, you know, I had been and I wanted to continue to be. So I left for India, hoping, of course, that I'd ... I'd relieve three nurses in that time. Go for three years. But I was only out there for one year, when, in fact, we were directed by the Australian Government to come out as a result of the Indochina border dispute and I was in Assam, India, almost at the foot of the Himalayas, very close to the fighting and so I came out, in the hopes, of course ... down to Calcutta, hoping that in a short time I'd be able to return but, you know, it just took too long and I though I'd better get on a plane home while I had some money.

So what was it like in India?

Very tough. There were no ... no doctors so, of course, the nurse was responsible for ... for everything and of course I wasn't a ... I wasn't a qualified midwife, but I'd ... I'd actually gone to the Queen Victoria Hospital and done a very quick course in midwifery before I went to India, because a good part of our ... of our work out there was child delivery, which was very sad because there were very few live births in India.

Why was that?

Well that was due to the poor condition of the mothers, malnutrition, and so it was very difficult. And, of course, we ... we moved around. It was very remote, jungle country and so on and so the people if they wanted a nurse in the village overnight, would come single file through the jungles and get the nurse to come into the village and watch over and in many instances, of course, the birth wouldn't happen that night, but they would be too afraid, of course, to come out during the night. So you'd sit up in the village while everybody would promptly go to sleep and ... and watch over the mother or whoever - the patient in the village. Sometimes, of course, by morning the baby hadn't been born and so on and you'd have another day's work ahead of you at the clinic so you'd make your way back and go to work. The only saviour, of course, during that time, from the nurse's point of view ... because I can't remember hardly a night that I spent in bed because come sunset there'd be a group of people at the door to escort you back to the village to watch over somebody and you'd walk single file with a jute stick flare in the front and one at the back to ward off any, you know, wild beasts that might be lurking in the ...

Were there tigers up there?

There were tigers there, yes. There were cobras and there were, you know, those sorts of scary things and so on. There were, of course, the elephants that used to stampede so we, in fact, got lots of terrible injuries and, of course, I also learnt to suture wounds and so on before I left and so we had all those sorts of things that we had to attend to in the village.

What were some of the other sorts of cases that came to the clinic? You had injuries, you had childbirth. What other sorts of things did you deal with?

Tuberculosis. Almost everyone who came, particularly from Tibet, Bhutan, who used to come through, would come and everyone who came to the clinic could have been treated for something like tuberculosis and would stay around, you know, for some time. Malnutrition, malaria, and, of course, children, if they didn't survive till two years would ... a lot of children, of course, died of malaria and I myself came down with malaria when I got back to Australia. But that was due, of course, to sitting in the villages, you know, every night, getting bitten by those great mosquitos. Came back and, of course, was sought after by student doctors who had not seen malaria, of course, for some time. I found myself down for some time but I'm totally cured of that.

Now, tell me, did you feel at all phased by all of this? I mean here you were a nurse having to act as a doctor. You were young. How old were you when you went?

I guess I'd have been twenty-seven [or] eight.

And you had all this responsibility laid on you shoulders. How did you cope with it?

Well I can't remember feeling that it ... that, you know ... that it was something that I couldn't ... I couldn't deal with. And I did. I was nervous. I felt nervous, you know, on going to India but once I got there I knew that, you know, I was in charge. There was an expectation that I'd, you know ... I'd perform, and I did it to the best of my ability.

Did you have plenty of medicines and supplies?

Yes there were plenty of supplies. I felt nervous in the ... I wasn't nervous of my ... of my ability to do the job, but I was sad about, of course, the fact that there were few live ... few live births. But the village women didn't seem to be all that phased by it, because there was always, you know, another one, you know, sort of. But I was frightened of the village men, the Muslim men in particular, because I felt a bit unsafe about that. I didn't have any, I guess, real reason to be, but I felt that they watched you very closely and I felt a bit unsure about all of that. And for the most part we were meant to travel with two nurses, and we did when we could, but often we couldn't. But I wasn't at all nervous of the ... of the Boro people and that was the group of people - Mongolian featured people - who were, I guess, for all intents and purposes, Chinese, who were right on the border there. So I wasn't nervous at all about that group of people because I think they felt a sense of responsibility to you, because you'd come out from Australia to look after them and so on but I didn't feel the same about the Muslim men.

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