1922 - 2009

History-making palaeontologist, who discovered the first dinosaur fossils in New Zealand

New Zealanders are often surprised to hear that dinosaur fossils have been found in our far-flung country.

But they'd be more awed to learn how some of the most remarkable discoveries have been made by a woman who decided to become a geologist while collecting rocks with her two young children.

Alongside the likes of cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley and mycologist Kathleen Curtis, so-dubbed "dinosaur lady" Joan Wiffen was one of our most inspirational female scientists.


Only a handful of dinosaur fossil localities are known in New Zealand; the main one was found in 1975 by Wiffen at the Te Hoe River in Hawke's Bay.

Despite minimal secondary school education, Wiffen studied dinosaurs for more than 30 years and in the process became immortalised as a giant in the field of palaeontology by her peers worldwide.

Her husband had enrolled in night classes in geology, but became ill so Joan went in his place. In the 1970s Joan and her husband Pont tracked down a map from a petroleum company that noted "reptilian bones'' in the Te Hoe Valley.

On the verge of retirement they took up prospecting for fossils and by 1980 they had discovered the single bone of a dinosaur - the first in New Zealand.

Joan went on to find half a dozen other dinosaurs and in 1994 received an honorary doctorate from Massey University.

The following year she was made a CBE and in 2004 Joan accepted the Morris Skinner Award from the US-based Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology for outstanding and sustained contributions to scientific knowledge.

"Joan showed that the interested, logical and critical mind is the single most important factor in success," vertebrate palaeontologist Dr Ralph Molnar said at the time of her death, aged 87, in 2009.

"She showed that a person with these qualities can make important contributions to their chosen field. She will be long remembered and much missed.''