Tributes came in from around the world when Joan Wiffen died in 2009. Alongside colleague Ralph Molnar, Joan identified and published on the first dinosaur fossils in New Zealand. Joan rewrote the way we understand the country’s past. Joan achieved this fame as an amateur scientist, not a professional. She received numerous honours and awards, wrote scientific publications and popular books and had a documentary film made about her life. Yet all this only happened in the later part of her life.
These were priceless treasures from the past – and, suddenly, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.Joan Wiffen
Joan’s early life was typical of many women born in the 1920s. Her parents saw no need for further education, so Joan left school and worked as a clerk, got married, brought up two children and helped her husband on their small farm.
It wasn’t until 1972 that a growing interest in rocks and fossils led Joan and her family to visit a remote valley in north-west Hawke’s Bay. Over more than 35 years, the Mangahuoanga Stream yielded many land and marine fossils from the Late Cretaceous period, including dinosaurs.
With no formal scientific training, Joan learnt by experience – how to spot fossils, how to extract them from very hard rock, how to identify them and how to use the fossils to put together a picture of ancient New Zealand. She enlisted the help of dinosaur experts abroad (there were none in this country at the time) to carry out identifications and present findings in scientific journals and at conferences. To start with, being a woman with no scientific qualifications was a real drawback, so Joan concentrated on the fossils and their meaning, and gradually, she became accepted by the professional community. Her willingness to communicate her work to children and the general public also made her widely known. Joan ended up having more widespread recognition than most professional scientists.
The timeline below lets you see aspects of Joan's life and work, and how her findings changed scientific thinking. A full timeline transcript is here.
Acknowledging the fossil finder
In the acknowledgements to their 1988 paper, Joan Wiffen and Ralf Molnar cite and thank Trevor Crabtree for collecting the pterosaur ulna and making it available for study. Crabtree’s discovery still stands as the first formally identified pterosaur record from New Zealand.
Watch this 1989 documentary Prehistoric life in New Zealand on the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website. This film is a tribute to the work of Joan Wiffen.
The fossil that started the study of dinosaurs is one of Te Papa’s greatest treasures. In this YouTube video Dr Hamish Campbell shows us the very first artifact from the giant lizards.
Radio New Zealand National celebrated Joan Wiffen's life in this programme from Our Changing World.
GNS Science holds the National Paleontology Collection. It contains over 27,000 registered individual specimens and over 125,000 registered collection lots, with a total specimen number in the millions.
Discover more about Don Haw's early discoveries and how this stimulated Joan Wiffen to search the area in the 1970s in this 2022 Stuff news article The fossil man time and fame (almost) forgot.