Eileen Fairbairn was born at Andersons Bay, Dunedin, on 27 June 1893, the daughter of Ada Pilkington and her husband, Andrew Fairbairn, a commercial traveller. Her father was a keen climber, and Eileen developed an enduring passion for mountains and mountaineering. In 1906 she walked the Milford track with her family. She attended Christchurch Girls’ High School and then Canterbury College, graduating BA in 1915. In 1921 she returned to Girls’ High to teach. For several years, while still living at home, she drew no salary to appease her father, who disapproved of her career.
In 1927 she went to Newnham College, Cambridge, England, and gained a diploma of geography. By 1929 she was back at Christchurch Girls’ High School teaching geography, biology and mathematics. At the time geography lacked resources in the schools and was not recognised as a separate subject in New Zealand universities. Eileen Fairbairn brought new perspectives to the curriculum, including field trips and the making of relief models. Later she would comment that the new methods were introduced ‘in the face of Departmental opposition which now seems ludicrous’.
She was an enthusiastic tramper and an associate member of the New Zealand Alpine Club, climbing extensively in the Mt Cook region. She joined the Canterbury Winter Sports Club before access roads, ski lifts or tows were built and everything, including heavy wooden skis, had to be carried up to the mountain slopes. Her pupils benefited from these pursuits: she took the tramping club to Banks Peninsula and the skiing club to Mt Cook.
Fairbairn retired from full-time teaching at the Girls’ High in 1942, but continued to take classes there and at St Andrew’s College and Christ’s College during the Second World War. In later years she often reappeared at Girls’ High as a relief teacher. She was long remembered with affection and respect by staff and pupils. In the classroom she was charming, energetic and fascinating, if sometimes alarming: the phrase ‘I’m lingering here with boiling oil’ was legendary. In the staffroom she was noted as a vigorous debater with a gift for getting in the final remark before she left.
In retirement Fairbairn travelled the world, enjoying the music, art and architecture of southern France and northern Italy and attending international geographical conferences. Her special interests were the effects of landscape on people and the processes that formed mountains. While in Brazil in 1956 she made a detailed study of coffee-growing lands and in 1960 she journeyed north from Sweden into Finland to examine the effects of glaciation. Her warmth of feeling, generosity of spirit, and perpetually enquiring mind won her many international friends. Fairbairn was a foundation member of the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Geographical Society; she became president in 1961 and one of its first life members in 1973.
In later life she built a cottage at Bealey Crag, near Arthur’s Pass National Park, where she planted many trees. In 1977, to mark the centenary of Christchurch Girls’ High School, she gave the cottage to her old school as a mountain lodge. Eileen Fairbairn died at Christchurch on 9 August 1981. She had never married. She is remembered for pioneering the teaching of modern geography in New Zealand secondary schools.