Story: Wiffen, Joan

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Wiffen, Joan

1922–2009

This biography, written by Simon Nathan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.

Joan Wiffen was a self-taught palaeontologist who greatly advanced knowledge of fossil reptiles in New Zealand. Wiffen, who described herself as ‘a rank amateur, a Hawkes Bay housewife in fact, with no scientific training, just … a great deal of curiosity’, made some of New Zealand’s most important scientific breakthroughs.1 Despite a lack of formal education or specialised equipment, Joan’s excavations of fossil remains in a remote Hawke’s Bay valley produced the first evidence that dinosaurs had once lived on the New Zealand landmass.

Childhood, war service and marriage

Joan was born on 4 February 1922 in Mount Eden, Auckland, and was adopted the following year by Alfred Ernest and Ivy Pedersen of Mangaweka. Alfred was a millhand and farm labourer, and the family lived at a number of different locations, mainly in the King Country and Hawke’s Bay, during Joan’s childhood. Joan’s education was partly by correspondence and partly at local primary schools, and she left school at the age of 12. To her great regret, she was not able to advance beyond primary level because she would have had to board away from home.

The Second World War opened up employment opportunities for young women. Aged 20, Joan joined the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force and was initially posted to Wellington. Her first job was as a runner in Defence headquarters, delivering files to offices. Despite her lack of education it quickly became clear that she could handle a more demanding job. She was trained as a radar plotter, then posted to Northern Group Headquarters in Auckland. She later worked as a medical clerk at Ardmore, Blenheim and Wigram.

Demobilised in 1948, Joan returned to Hawke’s Bay and worked in a radio shop. In the early 1950s she met radio technician Montague Arthur Wiffen (known as Pont), and they were married at Haumoana on 12 September 1953. They had two children, Christopher (born 1956) and Judith (born 1961). The Wiffens lived near the 2YH radio transmitter at Ōpapa, where Pont worked, for the first five years of their marriage. In about 1958 they purchased a 10-acre farm in Tuki Tuki Road, Haumoana. Joan worked on the property, growing glasshouse tomatoes and cucumbers and outdoor asparagus to help make ends meet. In about 1968 they shifted to a smaller seaside section at 138 Beach Road, Haumoana, after Pont had a series of heart attacks which made further farm work impossible.

Fossil-hunting and early years in the Mangahouanga Valley

In the late 1960s Pont and Joan developed an interest in collecting and polishing stones after Pont attended a geology night class. Both joined the local rock and mineral club, and in 1969 they visited Queensland with a group interested in Australian minerals and gemstones. Joan purchased a small trilobite fossil for 50 cents. She had been fascinated by fossilised shells on the Hawke’s Bay hillsides of her childhood, and she now realised that she was more interested in fossils than polished stones.

Joan soon convinced Pont to focus on fossils instead of gemstones, and the family visited many fossil localities around New Zealand during family holidays and outings. Joan found a reference in a geological map to rocks that contained ‘reptilian remains’ in a remote part of inland Hawke’s Bay. It took six months to get information on the locality and then to get permission from the landowner to visit. On Saturday 2 December 1972 the Wiffens made their first visit to Mangahouanga Stream, which flowed through steep, forest-covered hills. Joan recalled her excitement at their first view of the rocks: ‘Every one of the cold grey stones in the water seemed to sprout fossils … There were rocks encrusted with fish teeth, shark teeth, fish scales and vertebrae, gleaming on the surface’.2 Joan was then aged 50, and fossils from this stream were to be the focus of her life for the next 35 years.

Joan was astonished to find that no one had visited the locality since it was noted during an oil exploration survey in the 1950s, and the rich fossil fauna had never been described. The rocks were of late Cretaceous age (about 66–68 million years ago) and had been deposited in a shallow sea, possibly a lagoon. Most of the fossils were in calcareous sandstone concretions – hard, grey boulders which formed around a nucleus of organic matter such as a shell or bone.

Collecting and transporting the fossils was hard, physical work. The Wiffen family and interested friends spent their weekends and holidays at Mangahouanga Stream, and later built a hut as a base there. They had to break the fossil-bearing rocks into pieces small enough to carry to the road, initially using explosives until they discovered this sometimes damaged the fossils. Later they obtained a masonry blade that could be attached to a chainsaw, and carefully cut out blocks containing fossils. They carted the specimens out in backpacks.

Extracting the fossils from the surrounding rock was a difficult and painstaking task, and Joan’s experience as a rockhound with grinding and cutting equipment was put to good use. The surrounding rock could be slowly loosened in a solution of dilute acetic acid, but this required constant attention to avoid damage to the fossils. Most of the acid extraction was done outdoors, but Joan kept a container with precious or interesting specimens in the kitchen and would sometimes get up at night to check how the extraction was going.

Identifying the first dinosaurs

The Wiffens discovered their first fossilised bone in 1973, but Joan soon found that there was almost no one in New Zealand who could advise her on identification. She set out to teach herself from textbooks. Early discoveries were gradually identified as vertebrae from marine mammals, long-necked plesiosaurs and large alligator-like mosasaurs which were contemporaries of the dinosaurs. As collecting continued, the Wiffens eventually extracted almost complete plesiosaur and mosasaur skulls, and marine reptiles remained Joan’s main focus for the rest of her career.

Similar marine fossils had been discovered elsewhere in New Zealand, but evidence that dinosaurs had once walked the New Zealand landmass remained elusive. This changed in 1979 when the Wiffens visited Dr Ralph Molnar, an American dinosaur expert based at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. Joan saw a vertebra on his desk that she felt was identical to one of the unidentified specimens they had excavated in about 1975. Molnar inspected their fossil and confirmed that it was the tailbone of a theropod, a medium-sized carnivorous dinosaur. At last the presence of dinosaurs in New Zealand had been confirmed.

Dr Molnar described the discovery at a conference in Wellington in February 1980, and the identification of the first dinosaur bone was not questioned. Joan was called to the front of the lecture theatre and her discovery was applauded, though she felt that few of those present recognised the magnitude of her discovery. She was incensed when some speculated that the fossil may have been washed over from Australia.

Nineteen eighty was an important year for Joan Wiffen. Her first scientific paper was published, describing a new mosasaur that she named Moanasaurus mangahouangae. As she acknowledged, she had considerable assistance from Geological Survey staff in understanding the conventions of illustrating and describing fossils, but she was a quick learner and thereafter was able to confidently prepare manuscripts for publication. She also gave her first scientific talk at the annual conference of the Geological Society of New Zealand. Modestly titled ‘Fossils from an upper Cretaceous outcrop (a contribution from an amateur palaeontologist)’, it was a summary of her achievements over the last seven years, including the recovery of reptile bones, fish remains, shark teeth, turtle bones, a crab and the dinosaur vertebra.

In her early days Joan sometimes felt patronised by professional geologists. An academic advised her to sign herself ‘J. Wiffen’ when writing papers to obscure her gender, because ‘men have better chances of publishing than elderly female housewives’.3 The quality of her work was gradually recognised by the local scientific community, though she commented in 1992 that she still found it easier to present her research overseas. From the 1980s onwards she was increasingly recognised as the expert on New Zealand’s Cretaceous reptiles.

The 1980s were a highly productive period. The Wiffens had gained considerable experience collecting fossils, and continued to make new discoveries in Mangahouanga Stream, including additional dinosaur fragments. One of the most exciting discoveries was a pterosaur – a flying reptile, jointly described by Joan Wiffen and Ralph Molnar. Joan was continually improving her techniques for extracting fossil bone from its hard rock matrix, and tackled some fragile specimens that had previously been set aside. A major paper in 1986, co-authored with Bill Moisley, described all the plesiosaur material they had collected, and gave a review of the group in New Zealand. A second major paper in 1990 described the mosasaur discoveries. All of the specimens Joan illustrated and described were deposited in the National Palaeontological Collections at GNS Science. The marine invertebrates, mainly shells, were passed on to the New Zealand Geological Survey and other experts.

To assist in identification of fossil bones, Joan joined the US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and attended its conferences in 1983, 1996 and 2004, as well as visiting museums and universities. She built up a network of overseas correspondents, some of whom came to New Zealand to visit Mangahouanga Stream.

Later years

Joan was always keen to share her knowledge of fossil reptiles with a wider audience. Her memoir, Valley of the dragons (1991), brought her celebrity status as the ‘dinosaur lady’, though she preferred ‘dinosaur woman’. She was soon in great demand as a speaker at schools and many local groups. Later she wrote the text for Dinosaur New Zealand (2002), in which Geoffrey Cox illustrated reconstructions of the reptiles that Joan had collected and described over the preceding 30 years. It was literally putting flesh on the bones, and provided an accessible summary of Joan’s palaeontological work.

Joan’s work on fossil reptiles was recognised by a special award from the Geological Society of New Zealand in 1986; by an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 1994; by the award of a CBE in the 1995 New Year’s honours; and by the Morris Skinner award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2004.

The Wiffens lived frugally, and in their later years much of their income went on expenses associated with palaeontological work – the purchase of books, journals, chemicals and equipment for the extraction of fossils. Pont Wiffen died in 1992. Joan continued her work, mainly concentrating on extracting and describing new specimens. In order to protect the Mangahouanga site she negotiated with the landowners that it would be covered by a Queen Elizabeth II Trust covenant, with a management plan allowing limited access for authorised fossil collecting. In 2000 she moved to a retirement village in Havelock North, where she used her garage as a laboratory. Fittingly her last paper, written jointly with Ralph Molnar and published in 2007, described the vertebra of a titanosaur, one of largest dinosaurs known, which Joan had found in Mangahouanga Stream and extracted in her garage laboratory. She died in Hastings on 30 June 2009, at the age of 87.

Footnotes:
  1. ‘Joan and the dragons’, Spectrum radio programme, 1996. Audio recording. ID 22434. Nga Taonga Sound & Vision. Back
  2. Joan Wiffen. Valley of the Dragons. Auckland, 1991, pp.9-10 Back
  3. Quoted in Paula Martin (ed.). Lives with science: profiles of senior New Zealand women in science. Wellington, 1993, p.31 Back
How to cite this page:

Simon Nathan. 'Wiffen, Joan', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6w4/wiffen-joan (accessed 16 October 2018)