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Affectionately known as the 'Dinosaur Lady of New Zealand', Joan Wiffen rewrote New Zealand’s natural history when she discovered a fossilised bone in the Mangahouanga Stream in Hawke’s Bay in 1973. Formal identification of the theropod bone (in 1979) debunked the commonly held belief that dinosaurs had never inhabited Aotearoa.
Born at a time when educational opportunities for girls were slim, Wiffen left school early. She discovered her passion for fossils when she attended a night-school geology class for her husband, Pont. The class sparked a deep curiosity that never left her and over the following 35 years Wiffen’s scientific endeavours covered arduous field work, painstaking fossil preparation, taxonomic description and palaeontological interpretation. In the process, and with no formal training, she revealed evidence of probably five types of dinosaur in New Zealand.
Motivated by the joy of discovery, Wiffen communicated her passion for fossils and palaeontology through popular books and articles, public lectures and school presentations – all of which turned this self-described “rank amateur, a Hawke’s Bay housewife” into one of New Zealand’s best-known scientists.
Witness Wiffen’s enthusiasm for her craft in these excerpts from Joan and the Dragons – a Spectrum documentary broadcast on RNZ in 1996.
Listen to the complete Joan and the Dragons.
Find out more about Joan Wiffen:
See Wiffen's biography at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
Joan Wiffen is remembered by the Science Media Centre.
Read about her on the Science Learn website.
You can also read Wiffen's obituary on Stuff.co.nz.
Image: Joan Wiffen holding the humerus of a plesiosaur. 4467, Wendy St George, courtesy of GNS Science.
Catalogue Reference 22434
Interviewer: Alistair McAlpine, Spectrum,