1942 - 2018
Ailsa Thorburn was born a South Auckland girl in 1942 when East Tamaki was worked and populated by dairy farming families. Her parents’ property on Ormiston Road was purchased by Ailsa's great great grandparents in 1864 and it stayed in family ownership for 113 years. This settled history at one place, gave her and her sister and two brothers a strong knowledge of who and where they came from.
These certainties from childhood, plus an environment of family music, sport, and church activities gave Ailsa the confidence to pursue her following adventurous life. Leadership qualities came to the fore at Otahuhu College when it was the largest secondary school in New Zealand. She became Head Prefect while excelling at a number of sports (later representing Auckland at hockey), and musical talents were more finely tuned on violin, viola, piano and her special contralto singing voice.
She easily transferred her abilities to medicine after schooling and soon became a highly qualified registered nurse, looking to change the world. This led her to join the Methodist Church missionary nursing service in 1966, and fly to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. This move was seriously challenging as Ailsa was sent to the Huli tribe community of 30,000 people in the Mt Hagen/Tari district. She wrote in her own words at that time, “they had only had 18 years to come out of the stone age into the atomic age.” After 12 years nursing and caring for these people whom she greatly loved, she also commented, “a member of this primitive tribe is studying at university, despite the fact his people had never heard of a university before 1951.”
Following her return to a property at Katikati with her then husband John Gordon-Kirkby, she soon became a strong advocate for the Bay of Plenty lifestyle. But her call to nursing overseas came back and in 1988 she joined Volunteer Service Abroad to go to Africa's Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. Her two-year service there was best described by one of her nephews, Peter Thorburn, who told his father on his return after having great difficulty even finding her in the depths of Central Africa , “ I could never adequately describe the conditions Aunty Ailsa was working in at that bush hospital. They were that extreme.” Ailsa's philosophy for working in those circumstances confirmed her wonderful attitude to life, “I just took what was there, and got on with the job.”