Topic: Joan Wiffen, a fossil expert
As a child, Joan Wiffen remembered marvelling at the presence of sea shells that she saw high in the Hawke’s Bay hills, but her brush with formal education and science was minimal. She was brought up during a time when it was not thought important for girls and women to have much education. She was a country girl, whose main expectation in life was to get married and have a family.
During the Second World War, she joined the New Zealand Air Force and worked for six years as a clerk. In 1953 she married Pont Wiffen, and they made a life together on a small farm in Hawke’s Bay, where they restored the derelict buildings, made a garden, raised two children and assorted farm creatures, ran a couple of greenhouses and an asparagus patch, while Pont also worked in town.
Joan’s interest in science was kindled through the natural history books she obtained to share with her young children. The whole family joined the local rock and mineral club, and this was a source of family outings to collect all kinds of rocks which were then tumbled in a rock polisher. But the real impetus for the present phase of Joan’s life-work came from the time Pont became ill and could not attend his geology night classes. So as not to waste the fees, he sent Joan along in his place.
She became fascinated by geology, and finding her first fossils was a big thrill. But it was not until they spent some months gem-fossicking in Queensland, and Joan happened to buy a fifty-cent trilobite fossil from a roadside stall that she became hooked on fossils, fascinated by the links with living things from the far distant past that they represented.
On their return to New Zealand, the family fell in behind Joan’s new enthusiasm, and they set off on expeditions to various parts of the country in search of fossils. Joan was by now familiar with the world of dinosaurs through books borrowed from the library, and she formed an ambition to find dinosaur fossils in New Zealand. She did not know at the time that most people believed that New Zealand had never had dinosaurs – our land had been isolated from other lands for so long that it did not seem likely.
In the family’s search through geological survey maps trying to find likely places to search for fossils, Joan spotted a reference to ‘reptilian bones’ in a riverbed in the hills behind Hawke’s Bay. It took about six months to establish where the place was, whose property it was on, and to get a permit to go there.
Sure enough, when they found the stream site in this remote mountain valley, they saw ‘… rocks encrusted with fish teeth, shark teeth, fish scales and vertebrae … shells of all kinds, a few worn belemnites and a fragment of a small ammonite …’(1)
Over the months and years, they explored along the stream bed. Access was by foot only, the terrain was extremely steep and rugged, and every rock they wanted to study at home had to be carried to the car on their backs. After several months searching, they found their first fossil bone from a marine reptile. This was the beginning of many discoveries of other marine reptile fossils.
Everything had to be learnt from scratch, and by trial and error – extracting fossils from rock using acid and chisels, making casts of the fossils to send to experts for identification, and writing scientific papers on findings. Joan was teaching herself palaeontology – a complex scientific field, demanding practical and academic skills of a high order. She also did it at her own expense (by necessity on the cheap), in her own time, and in the relative isolation of Hawke’s Bay.
Joan found her first fossil dinosaur bone at the Mangahouanga site in 1975. She knew the bone was unusual, and of a land-dwelling creature, but it was several years before it was identified as belonging to a theropod dinosaur.
Joan felt she was continually battling against her lack of training, and because of this, scepticism from the local scientific community. There were no dinosaur experts in New Zealand – what was the need for them here? The dinosaur bone find was announced at a conference on Gondwanaland in 1980 by a recognised academic palaeontologist from the United States of America, in order to allay doubts about the validity of the amateur Joan Wiffen’s work.
Today, the former presence of dinosaurs on New Zealand’s landmass is unarguable because of Joan’s work. She and her colleagues have found at the Mangahouanga site fossil bones of at least three kinds of carnivorous dinosaur, three kinds of herbivorous dinosaur, and one kind of flying reptile. That is quite apart from some fine examples of marine reptile fossils and some rare and unique examples of other marine species. One of her finds from this site, a dinosaur toe bone, can be seen in the Awesome Forces exhibition.
Joan Wiffen was a remarkable model for women in science – tenacious, courageous, and adaptable. But she does not recommend her path of learning to young women of today. They should get all possible training, she feels, so as to be on an equal footing with colleagues.
Joan was also a model for us all as learners – taking on new challenges in her middle years, not being put off by scarcity of resources, and pursuing her interests wholeheartedly.
(1) Wiffen, Joan. (1991). Valley of the Dragons: the story of New Zealand’s dinosaur woman. Auckland: Random Century. p 10.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.