O'Donnell, Erica Marie-Josèphe (1920–99), art historian and SOE officer, was born 11 March 1920 in Dublin, the only child of Eric Hugh O'Donnell, a British army officer of Dublin and Ballingaddy, Co. Limerick, and his wife Mary Mabel Elizabeth, second daughter of Joseph Charles Dunbar of Cork and Ceylon. Eric Hugh O'Donnell (1893–1940) served with distinction in France and the Balkans during the Great War, was called to the bar (1925), became a major-general in 1945 as director of public relations at the war office, and was a master of the King's Bench division, 1946–50. Educated at St. Mary's Convent in Ascot, Berkshire (1929–35), Erica studied the history of art and entered the Courtauld Institute in 1937. Her studies took her abroad and she lived in Paris and Salzburg and travelled to Germany. After the outbreak of the second world war, she returned to England and, fluent in both French and German, worked for the BBC's overseas service in Evesham.
Because of her linguistic ability and knowledge of Europe she was recruited by MI5. In September 1940 she was recruited into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and given officer's rank, working in the headquarters of the Czech section. She oversaw the training of Czech agents and also liaised with officials in the Political Warfare Executive and the Ministry of Economic Warfare. In March 1944 she transferred to the SOE's French section and later worked with the headquarters of the French Forces of the Interior. Her Times obituary stated that she parachuted into German-occupied territory, but this is not confirmed by her official SOE file. In December 1944 she left the SOE to take up an appointment with the Red Cross to care for concentration camp survivors.
After the war she worked in the British embassy in Paris before returning to England to resume studies with the Courtauld Institute in 1948. She became a prominent member of the Special Forces Club in London and mixed in London émigré society – her friends included intellectuals such as Ernst Gombrich, Johannes Wilde, and Rudolf Wittkower – and helped Anthony Blunt catalogue the drawings by Stefano Della Bella in the Royal Collection. She noticed that, while universities offered degrees in the history of art and some galleries ran lecture courses, no institution offered a course that embraced all aspects of the fine and decorative arts. Supported by Sir Trenchard Cox, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, she designed a course aimed at aspiring museum keepers, auctioneers, country-house owners, and students of art. Given use of the V&A's lecture hall and galleries, she encouraged friends from the museum and the Courtauld Institute to give lectures. In this rather informal way she established the Study Centre for the History of the Fine and Decorative Arts in 1964, initially based at the V&A. Applications for places always exceeded the number available and her example encouraged universities to offer similar courses. She retired as director of the centre in 1990 and was awarded an MBE in the same year.
In later years she suffered from diabetes but still remained fiercely independent. She died 12 March 1999 in London, the day after her 79th birthday. In 1958 she married Jozef Kisielewski (d.1965), the exiled Polish historian and author; they had two sons.