Earlier this month, on Friday, April 3, Australia's Aboriginal community lost one of the greats with the death of Elizabeth Williams-Butt, former chair of the Queanbeyan Hospital and a prominent advocate for Indigenous rights.
As a proud and strong Wiradjuri woman, Elizabeth dedicated all her personal and working life to promoting Aboriginal health and equity issues not only within her own community but also nationally and internationally.
The youngest of 15 children, Elizabeth was born on May 20, 1954, in Cobram Hospital, on the Murray River, Victoria.
But if you ever asked Elizabeth where she was from, she would proudly tell you she was a Wiradjuri woman from Narrandera who lived on the Sand Hills in her early years.
She was educated at Narrandera Public School and at Dulwich Hill High School in Sydney's Inner West.
Elizabeth's working life started briefly with a position at a kitchenware factory in Dulwich Hill. Her first pay was $28 - $20 to her mother and $8 for herself.
She quickly moved to a position at the Foundation of Aboriginal Affairs, at that time under the steerage of Charles Perkins AO. This position piqued her desire to promote health and equity for Aboriginal people.
At 17, in 1971, Elizabeth gained a position at the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, which had only just opened its doors, working under Mum Shirl and Fred Hollows. As a founding staff member, Elizabeth quickly moved from administration to become a health co-ordinator. She initially shared this position with Naomi Mayers OAM, who became the service's CEO.
In 1975, Elizabeth returned to Wiradjuri country, taking up a position as an Aboriginal health worker at Griffith and later at Queanbeyan.
In 1982, Elizabeth was appointed to the Queanbeyan Hospital Board. She subsequently became chairperson of the board, a position she held for two terms. This was at a time when neither women or Aboriginal people were usually considered for such positions. During this time, she held multiple positions in the area including Manager of the Queanbeyan Family Day Care Centre.
In 1987, now living in Redfern with her family, Elizabeth was appointed to the NSW State Medical Board by Peter Anderson, NSW Minister for Health, and then to the position of Director, Aboriginal Health, NSW Health Department.
Her key responsibilities were to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Australia (1988-89), and to prepare NSW's response.
After resigning from the Directorship at NSW Health, Elizabeth took up a senior position in the Central Sydney Area Health Service. She established the Family Home in Marrickville (to accommodate patients and their families coming from the country for city medical services) and the Red Shirt Aboriginal Health Worker Program at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
Elizabeth was a pioneer; she had many firsts, not only for Aboriginal people but also as a woman. She was appointed to dozens of high-level committees, boards, and review panels, and co-authored or had input into a number of ground-breaking documents and reports.
She was heavily involved in the development of the National Aboriginal Health Strategy, still the foundation document for Aboriginal health policy in Australia today. She also worked on the first state-wide anti-smoking campaign, and helped develop the first health protocols into Aboriginal health. She was appointed to the NSW Medical Board and Disciplinary Tribunal, sat on Deaths in Custody review panels, and was often called on to present at colleges and universities, and to Parliamentary committees.
Elizabeth recently advised she was most proud firstly of her family and the growing numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In her professional career she was most proud of:
For the last 18 years, Elizabeth was wheelchair bound following a serious stroke. This did not stop her from actively fulfilling the role of her family's matriarch, or providing advice to others in the community and nationally when asked.
Such was her interest that she recently wrote to Tanya Plibersek, her Federal member, for a copy of the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety to ensure Aboriginal concerns were being taken into consideration.
Many people will remember Elizabeth as being very smart, well educated, a well-balanced mentor, and just a terrific person with impeccable humanity that is to be admired, loved, and respected.
Disregarding the fact that she was stunningly attractive, and had a great sense of humour, people were often mesmerised by her endless commitment to improving the lives of Aboriginal people.
Elizabeth can be accredited with single handily improving the wellbeing, health and living conditions of many Aboriginal people within NSW. She strived throughout her life to correct inequity and argue for justice and the rights of Aboriginal people. Her impact was felt not only within Australia, but also throughout the world.
She will forever be missed by her husband of 40 years Neville, daughters Bianca and Mayrah, grandchildren Luke, Keisha, and Liam, and her great grandchildren Birrabi and Rohan Jr.
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