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Dingley, Joan Marjorie

1916–2008

Mycologist, horticulturalist, gardener

This biography, written by Kate Hannah, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2022.

Joan Dingley was a mycologist, expert in plant taxonomy, horticulturalist and gardener who worked for 35 years in the Plant Diseases Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). Her significant contributions to New Zealand botany and horticulture included the identification and description of numerous plant diseases, the development of a major taxonomic collection of more than 35,000 fungal specimens, and playing a major role in the establishment of the Auckland Regional Botanical Gardens. She was among the first women employed in the scientific public service.

Early life and education

Joan Marjorie Dingley was born in Parnell, Auckland, on 14 May 1916, the second and youngest child of Harriet Griffiths and her husband, Captain Thomas Dingley. Both parents had been born in Wales, and Harriet also had several children from a previous marriage. Thomas, a partner in the stevedoring firm of Leonard and Dingley, died in 1925 when Joan was nine. Joan and her siblings spent their early years in Parnell, moving to Remuera in the early 1920s. Joan, who never married, lived at the family’s Victoria Avenue home for the rest of her life, with her mother and an unmarried sister until their respective deaths in 1956 and 1982.

Joan Dingley showed a strong interest in plants from childhood. Her mother was a keen gardener who exposed her children to plants growing in the wild during tramping trips in the Auckland region. Joan’s growing interest in botany and gardening was encouraged both at school and at home. She later recalled: ‘we were given pocket money to help look after the vegetable garden. I was also given my own piece of garden. I used to grow weeds in rows, weeds that I thought were attractive and different.’1 She attended the Ladies’ College in Remuera and later Auckland Diocesan School for Girls, where she preferred music to horticulture but excelled as a flower monitor.

On completing her secondary education, Dingley decided to study science at Auckland University College, majoring in zoology and botany. She graduated MSc in 1941, with a thesis on the morphology and ecology of the New Zealand tree fern Dicksonia squarrosa (whekī).

Career at the Plant Diseases Division of DSIR

In September 1941 Dingley was appointed to a temporary scientific position in the Plant Diseases Division of DSIR. The DSIR operated a national network of laboratories and research stations which, among other things, sought scientific solutions to agricultural and horticultural problems to support the country’s principal export industries. The Plant Diseases Division had recently established a research station at Ōwairaka Mount Albert, Auckland, to investigate plant pathology and mycology (the study of fungi) under the direction of Gordon H. Cunningham. Science was almost entirely a male profession at the time – there were only a handful of women anywhere in DSIR and none in Plant Diseases Division – but as Cunningham sought to build up his scientific staff he was prepared to appoint a woman as a temporary employee in the place of a man of military age who would be expected to serve in the war. Dingley later observed that, without the war, it would have taken her a lot longer to break into this male bastion. 

Dingley’s first task, in collaboration with mycologist Raymond M. Brien, was to research methods of preventing mould from forming on canvas army tents and fabric in the humid environment of the Pacific. It provided her first introduction to mycology, a subject which she had not been taught at university and had to be learnt on the job. Wartime conditions meant laboratory equipment had to be improvised from available materials, and tests were conducted with considerable urgency. The results, published in two articles jointly authored with Brien in 1945 and 1946, proved her worth as a scientist and laid the foundations for a distinguished career in the field of mycology. After the war most of the temporary positions in the public service were made permanent; Dingley was appointed to a permanent position as mycologist in March 1947.

Dingley set out to increase the body of knowledge about fungi which caused plant and animal diseases, especially those affecting agriculture. She travelled throughout New Zealand collecting specimens, including solo expeditions into the West Coast bush, where she relied on forestry workers to drop her at remote locations and collect her at the end of her explorations. She wrapped specimens in pages from the New Zealand Listener, dried them in hotel rooms, and packed them into flour and sugar bags for transportation to the laboratory. She increased the number of specimens in the Auckland herbarium from 4,000 at the start of her career to 35,000 by the time of her retirement, greatly strengthening its ability to diagnose plant diseases.

Collecting on this scale enabled Dingley to improve on earlier plant disease taxonomies, and she collaborated with Brien on updating his previously published lists. This resulted in the jointly authored A revised list of plant diseases recorded in New Zealand (1951) and, after Brien’s death in 1963, the solo publication Records of plant diseases in New Zealand (1969). These lists were essential resources for agricultural quarantine officers, who monitored the entry of plants into New Zealand to prevent the accidental introduction of exotic plant diseases. From the 1950s Dingley travelled internationally to study plant diseases in other countries, particularly at the Commonwealth Mycological Institute and the Royal Botanic Gardens in England. These visits helped her expand her understanding of fungi already in New Zealand and made her aware of dangerous international varieties which quarantine officers should be particularly alert for. She published more than 50 papers based on her research, particularly on the Hypocreales order of fungi, on which she became a world expert. She also represented New Zealand on the executive of the International Mycological Association.

Dingley brought her expertise to bear on a wide variety of programmes and projects, both within the department and outside it. She was part of the team which established that the facial eczema affecting New Zealand sheep and cattle was caused by a toxin produced by a fungus found in pasture. Between 1974 and 1977 she undertook survey work on agricultural pests and diseases in the Pacific; she published a list of them in collaboration with R.A. Fullerton and E.H.C. McKenzie in 1981. She also responded to regular requests from the public to identify mystery plants, trained police to identify cannabis and opium poppy plants, and helped the Department of Health identify fungal pathogens in food. She helped develop a horticultural training scheme which the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture (RNZIH) operated through the country’s technology institutes, serving as examiner for over a decade.

When Dingley joined DSIR she was among the first few women employed as scientists there, each on their own in a separate Division: Elsa Kidson in Geological Survey, Lucy Moore in the Botany Division, and Dingley in the Plant Diseases Division. At the Mount Albert laboratory there were limited bathroom facilities for women, and the cafeteria remained an exclusively male space until the 1960s. The ban annoyed Dingley so much that she still refused to eat there when it was eventually opened to all staff. She recalled that the wartime employment of women meant that she was usually accepted by male peers in the decades immediately following the war, although this acceptance had begun to fade by the 1960s and 1970s. The department was more inclined to support postgraduate study by male staff, and Dingley was always aware that, unlike most of her male colleagues, she did not have a doctorate. Cunningham, the Plant Disease Division’s first director, was not especially supportive of having women in scientist roles, but Dingley developed a good working relationship with him and completed his research for publication after his death in 1962. Dingley felt that her success as a working scientist contributed to the later acceptance of women in scientific roles.

Later life

Joan Dingley retired in December 1976 after 35 years with the DSIR and turned her energies towards gardening and horticulture. She and her mother had developed a substantial and diverse garden at their Remuera home, featuring ‘many horticultural treasures’.2 She had been a prominent member of the RNZIH since 1959, first as DSIR representative on its national executive and then as a longstanding committee member and president of the Auckland branch. She and other members campaigned for the creation of a botanical garden for the Auckland region, and she served on the technical advisory committee guiding its creation from 1975 until the Auckland Regional Botanical Gardens opened in Manurewa in 1982. She then chaired a panel providing advice on native plants, served on its Friends committee, fundraised vigorously for its development, contributed to its educational training scheme, and developed its extensive horticultural library, donating many books and botanical artworks from her own collection.

Dingley’s contributions to science were recognised by a series of honours. The RNZIH elected her an associate of honour in 1969, and a decade later the American mycologist James M. Trappe named a fungal genus Dingleya after her. In 1994 Massey University awarded her an honorary DSc, fulfilling her long desire for a doctorate, and the following year she was made an OBE for services to botany.

Joan Dingley was known for her forthright, sometimes prickly persona, but with those she trusted she was warm and generous. She died at her Remuera home on 1 January 2008, aged 91.

Footnotes:
  1. P. Martin. Lives with science: profiles of senior women in New Zealand science. Wellington, 1993: 8. Back
  2. A.D. Thompson. ‘Tribute to pioneer plant pathologist and mycologist, Dr Joan Dingley.’ New Zealand Botanical Society Newsletter. N.54, December 1998: 16. Back
How to cite this page:

Kate Hannah. 'Dingley, Joan Marjorie', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6d7/dingley-joan-marjorie (accessed 8 February 2023)