the dinosaur lady

This morning’s Herald carried the news that Joan Wiffen had died, at the age of 87, in Hastings hospital. Joan was a very special lady who made a significant contribution to our understanding of New Zealand’s palaeontological past, & she’ll be very sadly missed.

I met Joan back in the early 1970s, when I was in the 5th form (the equivalent of today’s year 11) & she had yet to make her name as a scientist. I’d caught the bus out to see her in Haumoana because I was doing a project on Hawkes Bay fossils for the Napier/Hastings science fair  & Joan & her husband Pont were quite well-known as amateur geologists. (Back then she wasn’t known as the ‘dinosaur lady’ or ‘dragon lady’ – those discoveries lay in the future & I remember that at the time people used to chuckle a bit at the notion that dinosaurs had once lived in New Zealand.) Joan was very kind, showed me some of the fossils that they’d collected, & talked about the best places to go looking for some of my own.

And she ignored the chucklers & kept looking for the dinosaurs that she was sure were out there. This was not a matter of simply looking in road cuttings & sea cliffs (as I was doing, with the patient support of my parents, who every year must have viewed the approaching science fair with some trepidation as they wondered what new thing they’d be sucked into). Not at all – Joan’s chosen site lay in the rugged hills of the Urawera National Park, in rocks that formed off the coast around 80 million or so years ago. Everything the Wiffens & their friends used had to be carried in up rough rocky streambeds, & they were carrying some serious stuff – rock saws & the like.

All this effort & patience paid off when in 1975 Joan found the tailbone of a theropod dinosaur – a bipedal carnivorous dinosaur that belonged in the same big branch of the dinosaur family as T.rex. Over the years she added bones from an ankylosaur (big armoured herbivores akin to the stegosaurs), a hypsilophodont (another vegetarian but this time a biped), a titanosaurid (one of the biggest dinosaurs ever); not to mention pterosaurs & marine reptiles such as mosasaurs (think rather large crocodile-like beasts with some seriously scary teeth). All this really added a new dimension to people’s understanding of what NZ was like all those millions of years ago; the title of ‘dinosaur lady’ was well earned.

In 1994 Joan Wiffen’s significant contribution to geology & palaeontology was recognised with an honorary Doctorate from Massey University. While in Palmerston North for the ceremony, she also came along to campus to give a lecture. Our eldest was 6 at the time & fascinated by dinosaurs, as I think most young children are (perhaps because dinos have the triple attraction of being big, fierce, & very safely dead!), so I took him along with me to hear her speak. And joy of joys – Joan brought with her one of the bones, placed it on a table, & happily let people look to their content. The son & I were over the moon with delight.

Joan really did epitomise that saying that ‘girls can do anything’. Self-taught and with not a lot of formal education, her passion, intellectual curiosity, determination, & sheer hard work took her to the top. What’s more, she was always ready to encourage others – the hour or so that she spent with me almost 40 years ago fanned my own nascent interest in palaeontology, a subject that still fascinates me today. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.

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