Emily Elizabeth Carpenter was born at Scargill, North Canterbury, on 20 January 1917, the daughter of Margaret Elizabeth Fleming and her husband, John Frederick Hyam Carpenter, a farmer. She went to Wharenui School, Christchurch, and Christchurch Technical College, before beginning science classes at Canterbury University College in 1936. The following year she transferred to the University of Otago, where she graduated with a bachelor of home science degree in 1940. For the next eight years she taught at Rangiora High School.
Carpenter’s interest in home science developed from her own farming and family background. She remembered how her mother, with five children under eight to support, carefully managed the family’s limited resources after her father died in 1923. In 1948 she returned to the University of Otago as tutor–organiser of the Home Science Extension Department in the newly established Department of Adult Education (later the Department of University Extension). She was to remain there as senior tutor in home science until her retirement in 1977.
In setting up the Home Science Extension Department’s national information service, Carpenter sought to meet the needs of women in the home. She held practical classes for town and country women, organised schools for short-term courses in special subjects, wrote quality publications suitable for a wide range of users, prepared articles for newspapers on home science subjects and arranged weekly programmes for national and commercial radio stations. The Home Science Extension Department also maintained a loan collection of educational material for women’s organisations, including Carpenter’s own book, Home management and house care (1968), which was widely used in New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain. She continually strove to increase her own skills and spent time studying overseas: she gained a diploma in basic upholstery at the Manhattan Trades Center, New York, in 1951, and took classes in interior design at the Hammersmith College of Art and Building, London, in 1960.
A longtime member of the Otago University Association of Home Science Alumnae, Emily Carpenter served as national president from 1955 to 1958. She was also a member of the executive of the International Federation of Home Economics (1976–84) and attended conferences in Ottawa (1976), Ireland (1978) and Manila (1980), when she was elected vice president of the federation’s newly formed Pacific region. For her work in home science education and related fields the Association of Home Science Alumnae of New Zealand awarded her honorary life membership in 1979.
Carpenter also made an impressive contribution to consumer organisations in New Zealand and overseas. She became a member of the Dunedin Consumer Association’s management committee in 1960, and served as its chairman from 1965 until 1973. She was appointed to the Consumer Council in 1968 and was its chairman from 1977 to 1983. She was also a leading participant at world congresses of the International Organisation of Consumers Unions. She is remembered for her work in consumer education in schools and for her history of the Consumers’ Institute of New Zealand, In the consumer interest (1980). For her services to the Consumer Council and home science she was appointed a CMG in the 1985 New Year’s honours.
In 1971 Carpenter co-wrote a university report on the training of food service supervisors employed in institutional meal service, which is now recognised as the starting point of formal training for food service supervisors. Under her leadership a working party was set up by the Vocational Training Council and in 1976 she was granted associate membership of the Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board. Recognised national training for food service supervisors began in 1977 with post-entry courses at the Waikato Technical Institute and Otago Polytechnic. Carpenter was also the only woman appointed to the 1979 committee of inquiry on the link between liquor sales and the financing of new or extended hotel accommodation.
Her other government and community activities included membership of the Metric Advisory Board, the National Council of Women, the Otago Home Economics Association and the Dunedin Budget Advisory Service’s management committee. Emily Carpenter, who never married, died in Dunedin on 14 March 1991.