Forgotten women of paleontology: Joan Wiffen, the dragon lady


Joan Wiffen (1922-2009) with the humerus of a plesiosaur, Elasmosaurus keyesi. From Wikimedia Commons

New Zealand is renowned for its mountains, its volcanoes, and beautiful landscapes. This long-isolated island was once part of Gondwana, but between 100 and 80 million years ago, New Zealand broke away from Gondwana and started to move toward its present position, with the accompanying formation of the Tasman Sea. Since then New Zealand has had its own geological history and developed a unique flora and fauna. Almost five decades ago it was thought that New Zealand had escaped the worldwide dominance of dinosaurs, but all that changed in the early 1970s, thanks to the work of a couple of amateur paleontologists: Joan and M.A. Wiffen.

Joan Pederson was born on February 4, 1922, in Mount Eden, Auckland. Her familiy lived in Hawke’s Bay, a rural coastal region on New Zealand’s northernmost island. As a child, she collected sea shells, and stones. Unfortunalety, her father did not believe in education for girls and Joan must left school at the age of 12. During World War II, she  joined the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force. She was trained as a radar plotter, and later worked as a medical clerk. In September 12, 1953, she married Montague Arthur Wiffen. The couple had two children, Christopher (born 1956) and Judith (born 1961). 


Joan Wiffen, from Caldwell, M, 2012

In the late 1960s, Joan took evening classes in geology. Later, she and her husband joined a local rock and mineral club and visited many fossil localities around New Zealand. In 1972, they made their first visit to  Mangahouanga Stream in Hawke’s Bay. Two years later, Joan discovered the bone of an unidentified animal. In 1979, Dr Ralph Molnar confirmed that the bone was the tailbone of a theropod dinosaur, the first ever discovered in New Zealand. 

In 1986, Joan co-authored with Bill Moisley, a major paper about the plesiosaur materials that she and her husband collected over the years.  Her  work on fossil reptiles was recognised by a special award from the Geological Society of New Zealand that same year. Joan Wiffen also found an ankylosaur, a sauropod dinosaur, mosasaurs, and a pterosaur. She was the author and co-author of more than a dozen scientific papers . In her autobiography,  “Valley of the Dragons”, she wrote that an academic advised her to sign as J. Wiffen when writing papers because  ‘men have better chances of publishing than elderly female housewives‘. In 1995 Joan was awarded a CBE (‘Commander of the British Empire’). She died on June 30, 2009.



Caldwell, M. (2012). In Memorium : Dr. Joan Wiffen (1922-2009). Bulletin de La Societe Geologique de France, 183(1), 5–6. doi:10.2113/gssgfbull.183.1.5 

Wiffen, Joan (1991). Valley of the Dragons: The Story of New Zealand’s Dinosaur Woman.  Random Century, Auckland.