Joan Wiffen was born in 1922 in New Zealand. Her father thought education was wasted on girls, so Joan didn’t get to go to high school. When she grew up, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce during World War II and served as a clerk for 6 years.
Joan got married in 1953. After a time, her husband signed up to take a geology class, but got sick and couldn’t go. Joan eagerly took his spot in the class, remembering her love of fossils as a child. She saw on a geologic map that a nearby valley had ‘Reptilian bones in beds of brackish water in the Te Hoe Valley’ and went out fossil hunting near her house. She involved the whole family in fossil and mineral hunting. In 1975, she found a fossil vertebra in Maungahouanga Valley! She knew it was from a land animal, but didn’t know which one.
In 1979, she went on vacation to Australia and visited the Queensland Museum. There she met Ralph Monar, a paleontologist, and noticed a familiar-looking bone on his desk: a vertebra exactly like the one she had found. He told her it was part of a theropod dinosaur tail. She had found the first dinosaur fossil from New Zealand!
Ralph and Joan worked together on many projects and published dozens of papers. Among her notable discoveries, she found a new species of mosasaurs and the first pterosaur from New Zealand. Because of Joan’s hard work, she was known as “The Dinosaur Lady.” Even though Joan had not gone to school, she received an honorary doctorate from the Massey University of New Zealand in 1994. She also received an Ordinary Commanders of the Civil Division of the said Most Excellent Order 31 Dec 1994 for services to science. In 2004, she received the Morris Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for sustained contributions to scientific knowledge. Joan passed away in 2009.
Guest Post by Eugenia Gold, who is part of a team running a Kickstarter campaign for a very cool looking kids book which brings the history of women fossil hunters to life in big bright colours — and multiple languages, with your support!
Edited by Brenna
More on Joan!
Jack McClintock. Romancing the Bone: how an amateur fossil hound unearthed dinosaur remains in a most unlikely place and rocked the world of paleontology. Discover
Obituaries of Joan Wiffen