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Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Find out about the people who have helped shape our country, in the online The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB).

There are over 3000 biographies that were originally published in the printed Dictionary of New Zealand Biography between 1990 and 2000, and in the parallel Māori language series Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau. New biographies have been added in batches to the online DNZB since 2010.

Blog posts

December 2022 update: New Zealand storytellers

Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB) is in the process of publishing a group of new biographies about New Zealand storytellers, people who made significant contributions to public conversations about New Zealand identity across a variety of mediums. Publication of these commenced in late 2022 and will continue through 2023. These entries have been published so far:

  • DNZB general editor Tim Shoebridge wrote about cartoonist Murray Ball, creator of the iconic ‘Footrot Flats’ cartoon strip, which celebrated New Zealand’s rural life and introduced its culture to the world.
  • Literary critic and biographer Ian Richards wrote about Ian Cross, author of the landmark novel The god boy (1957), editor of the New Zealand Listener (1973–7), and influential senior broadcasting official (1977–86).
  • Diana Morrow, historian and biographer, wrote about Otago poet Ruth Dallas, a distinctive voice in the world of mid-twentieth century New Zealand literature.
  • Tim Shoebridge also wrote about broadcaster Paul Holmes, the country’s most influential radio and television presenter during the 1990s, whose opinionated and confrontational style earned him both admiration and condemnation and sometimes tested the limits of acceptable public discourse.
  • Former Te Ara general editor Jock Phillips has written about his friend Michael King, the best-known and most popular New Zealand historian of the 1980s and 1990s, who sought to communicate Māori culture to a wider audience and to celebrate the lives of New Zealand creative writers.
  • Literary scholar Paul Millar wrote about novelist, essayist and educator Bill Pearson, author of the novel Coal Flat (1963) and the influential essay ‘Fretful sleepers’ (1952).
  • Historian Barbara Brookes wrote about Jean Wishart, editor of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, the country’s best-selling women’s magazine, from 1952 until 1985.

Biographies to be published in 2023 include early film actress Maata Horomona, academic Hugh Kawharu, public commentator and intellectual Ranginui Walker, geographer and television presenter Kenneth Cumberland, conservation writer Geoff Park, historian Alan Ward, graphic designer Bill Haythornthwaite, museum professional Mina McKenzie, comedian John Clarke, novelist M.K. Joseph, scholar of Māori tradition Margaret Orbell, and photographer, poet, musician and political analyst Les Cleveland.

August 2022 update: New Zealanders and the environment

Ten people involved in the conservation and transformation of New Zealand’s land, mountains, plants, rivers and wildlife, for good or ill, have been added to Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB). This round was guest-edited by Manatū Taonga historian Sarah Burgess.

  • Journalist and magazine editor Rebekah White wrote about the pioneering female mountaineer, field ecologist and international authority on sika deer, Mavis Davidson.
  • Manatū Taonga historian and gardening history specialist Kate Jordan wrote about Tony Druce, New Zealand’s pre-eminent twentieth-century field botanist.
  • Guest editor Sarah Burgess wrote about Roly Earp, a pioneer kiwifruit orchardist of the 1960s and 1970s and an influential advocate for grower control of the industry.
  • Historian Margaret McClure, who has examined the history of tourism in New Zealand, wrote about Les Hutchins, who pioneered tourism in Fiordland in the 1950s, before the full potential of New Zealand’s tourist industry was recognised.
  • DNZB general editor Tim Shoebridge wrote about Bing Lucas, a senior public servant who was responsible for developing New Zealand’s modern national park system and walking tracks near urban centres.
  • Zoologist, wildlife filmmaker, writer and radio producer Alison Ballance wrote about Don Merton, ‘the man who saved the black robin’, whose pioneering conservation efforts brought three threatened New Zealand bird species back from the brink of extinction.
  • Historical geographer Michael Roche wrote about Lindsay Poole, a forester and senior public servant who headed the New Zealand Forest Service during the middle decades of the twentieth century.
  • Environmental journalist Charlie Mitchell wrote about environmental vandal Stewart Smith, who illegally released into New Zealand waterways exotic fish which prospered as pests and permanently damaged native ecosystems.

Two further entries, on Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Te Rangi environmental campaigner Hohepa (Joseph) Harawira and mycologist Joan Dingley, will be published soon.

March 2022 update: Architects and Designers

Fourteen new entries featuring legendary Kiwi architects, industrial and fashion designers, and inventors have been added to Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (DNZB). This special round, focussing particularly on those working in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, was guest edited by Manatū Taonga senior historian Elizabeth Cox, an architectural historian, and demonstrates the variety of New Zealand’s design history in these decades. 

  • Safua Akeli Amaama, Te Papa's Head of History and Pacific Cultures, has written about Joseph Churchward, a Samoan-born graphic designer whose internationally renowned typeface graced record covers, billboards, newspapers and popular literature during his lifetime and beyond.
  • Noted design historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins has written two essays. Avis Higgs was a leading figure in wartime textile design in Australia who became a New Zealand artist and designer of note upon her return to her native Wellington, while wallpaper designer, artist and interior designer William Mason made his own wallpapers by hand.
  • Otago University’s fashion design historian Natalie Smith has written on Kura Ensor (Waikato Tainui), a fashion entrepreneur from Auckland, who was part of a renaissance in Māori-influenced design during the 1970s.
  • Gareth Phipps, Manatū Taonga digital editor, wrote on Colin Murdoch, a Timaru-based inventor who revolutionised safety, convenience and cost-effectiveness of medical treatments for both humans and animals, including reusable syringes and tranquiliser guns. 
  • University of Canterbury architectural historian Ian Lochhead wrote on Peter Beaven, one of the most prominent figures in New Zealand architecture, both as the designer of instantly recognisable buildings and as a commentator on architecture and urban design, particularly in Christchurch.
  • Julia Gatley, architectural historian at the University of Auckland and author of many books about New Zealand architecture, has written about two important 20th century architects. Bill Wilson was the energy behind the Auckland architectural collective The Group, and Wellingtonian Sir Ian Athfield, who, with his firm Athfield Architects, designed some of New Zealand’s most distinctive buildings. 
  • Manatū Taonga historian Kate Jordan wrote about Nelson potters and businesspeople Jack and Peggy Laird, who founded and operated the innovative Waimea Pottery craft studio, a juggernaut of New Zealand pottery during the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Michael Smythe has also contributed two essays. Ergonomist James Coe  revolutionised the teaching of design in New Zealand, while pioneer industrial designer Gifford Jackson designed a wide range of well-known domestic, office, agricultural, transport, medical and maritime products.
  • Peter Richardson wrote about Fergus Sheppard, the Government Architect who led the Modernist architectural transformation of the government’s building programme in New Zealand in the 1960s.
  • Jacqueline Margetts and Rod Barnett, both landscape architecture educators, wrote about their friend Ted Smyth, a landscape architect of international repute who helped raise the profile of New Zealand garden design to the same level as architecture.
  • Landscape architect Garth Falconer has written about Harry Turbott, architect and landscape architect who pioneered an environmentally focused design practice in New Zealand in the latter half of the twentieth century. 

The captivating stories are supported by photographs and videos of the subjects and their work.

November 2021 update

A completely revised version of the entry on Leo and Vivian Walsh had been added to Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau Dictionary of New Zealand Biography:

August 2021 update

Nine new entries have been added to Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: 

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Updated on 21st December 2022