Written by
Natasha Wakely

Natasha Wakely

ZSL Archivist

20 March 2024

The Secret Life of Reptiles and Amphibians is now open at ZSL London Zoo so join us in commemorating Joan Procter, first female Curator of Reptiles and designer of the first Reptile House. 

Joan was born in 1897 and from a young age she was fascinated by the arts, science, and nature. Among her array of pets were numerous snakes and lizards. Joan’s passion for reptiles reached new heights when at the age of 16 she welcomed a young crocodile into her care. She was so attached to the crocodile that she took it to school with her, much to the surprise of her mathematics teacher. Joan was described as a brilliant student, but her studies were frequently interrupted due to bad health, and she had to abandon her dreams of university. However, her lifelong commitment to reptiles was already taking root, setting the stage for her extraordinary journey ahead. 

Joan Procter and ZSL

George Boulenger, Keeper of Reptiles and Fishes at the British Museum (Natural History) encouraged her passion for reptiles. He mentored Joan and when she left school, he invited her to work for him. Despite her lack of university qualifications, she excelled in the world of academic zoology and at the age of nineteen she presented her first scientific paper, on variations of the pit viper, to ZSL.

Joan forged a friendship with George Boulenger’s son, Edward, who was Curator of Reptiles at ZSL. By 1923, Edward had taken charge of developing the new Aquarium at London Zoo, and Joan assisted him. She designed and constructed scale models and arranged much of the rockwork. As Edward curated a stunning display of fishes and invertebrates, a challenge arose – the unavailability of suitable seaweeds. Ever the innovator, Joan fashioned seaweed imitations using coloured rubber. 

In 1924, Edward Boulenger assumed the role of Curator of the new Aquarium, paving the way for Joan to become Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians. This appointment marked a groundbreaking achievement as Joan was the first woman to hold this post and only the second female curator at ZSL.

Joan Procter's ZSL Record Card
Joan Procter's Record Card as ZSL's Curator or Reptiles

"From the beginning to the end it was her house"

Joan’s appointment sparked much curiosity in the press at the time, presumably because she was young, female and an expert in reptiles. She kept a scrapbook of the most scurrilous cuttings, adding annotations to provide a personal perspective. 

Joan also crafted rockwork for Monkey Hill and helped to design the main entrance to London Zoo, but her biggest triumph was the Reptile House. ZSL Secretary Peter Chalmers Mitchell said, “from the beginning to the end it was her house.” It was the first purpose-built facility of its kind and stood as a testament to forward-thinking design, notably incorporating ‘vita glass’ to provide natural ultraviolet light. 

Joan Procter portrait
Joan Procter's Scrapbook

In 1927 two Komodo Dragons named Sumba and Sumbawa arrived at London Zoo. Sumbawa would accompany Joan on her daily walks around the Reptile House and even played with small children. Joan caused quite a stir at one Scientific Meeting when she arrived with Sumbawa in tow. Joan wanted to refute the stories that Komodo Dragons were dangerous and untameable. Sumbawa quite happily complied and sat eating a chicken, a pigeon and six eggs. 

Joan was also a talented natural history artist, and we have some of her artwork in the Archives, such as this common green frog. 

Rana erythraea by Joan Procter


Sadly, Joan’s poor health continued for most of her life, and she decided to resign from her post in 1928. Then ZSL President, Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, refused to accept her resignation. She convalesced at Whipsnade Zoo but died in 1931 aged only 34. Whipsnade Zoo commemorated her with the road Miss Joan’s Ride, which still runs through the site today.  

This blog has been written using material from ZSL's archive.

More information

Read previous blogs on Joan Procter including HERpers: Women and Herpetology and Famous Women in our History.

Explore our archive catalogue

More on ZSL's Library and Archives