There has been widespread criticism of The Australian newspaper, after it printed an obituary for internationally acclaimed author Colleen McCullough that described her as "plain of feature" and "overweight".

Ms McCullough, whose novel 'The Thorn Birds' sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, died yesterday at the age of 77.

The best-selling writer passed away in hospital on Norfolk Island, which lies in the remote waters off Australia's eastern coast.

The Australian has been criticised for focusing on her appearance rather than her achievements in its obituary.

'The world is a less colourful place without Col'

HarperCollins Australia publishing director Shona Martyn said Ms McCullough had overcome a string of health and eyesight problems to continue writing through dictation.

"Ever quick-witted and direct, we looked forward to her visits from Norfolk Island and the arrival of each new manuscript delivered in hard copy in custom-made maroon manuscript boxes inscribed with her name," she said.

"The world is a less colourful place without Col."

Ms McCullough wrote 25 novels during her career, including her first book, 'Tim', which was made into a 1979 film starring Mel Gibson. The last, 'Bittersweet', was published in 2013.

'The Thorn Birds', set in the Australian outback, became a high-rating television series.

She also had a fruitful scientific career, establishing the neurophysiology department at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital and spending decade as a researcher at Yale Medical School in the United States.

Tributes flowed in for one of Australia's most internationally acclaimed writers, who is survived by her husband Ric Robinson.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described her as "a unique Australian personality and Norfolk Island's most famous resident".