“For nearly twelve years prior to the outbreak of World War II, I had been engaged upon the special project of studying and translating the religious texts of the Na-khi [or Naxi] tribe of northwest Yünnan. When it became impossible for me to stay in Likiang for economic reasons, I gathered my material and shipped it from Calcutta on the S.S. Richard Hovey to the United States. This ship was sunk in 1944 by the Japanese and all my work was lost. I then determined to return to China to do the work over again.”
The 1949 affidavit quoted above shows the absolute determination of a man under often heartbreaking conditions. Joseph Rock was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1884. He escaped his family’s plan that he join the priesthood, he survived tuberculosis, and as the quote above shows, he overcame world crises. Rock was devoted solely to his work in a way that is both enviablehe threw off distractions and entanglementsand simultaneously unsettling. But Rock was not simply a compulsive workaholic. He loved opera. He maintained a wide circle of friends, and with them, until his death, he used the nickname “Pohaku,” which is the Hawaiian word for rock. Joseph Rock’s peripatetic lifestyle, a series of travels and expeditions punctuated by brief periods of rest in the United States or Europe, seems most clearly traced by a timeline.
1905: Rock arrived in New York
1907: Diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised to seek a dry climate; instead headed to Hawaii
1908: Resigned his teaching job due to ill health and joined the Division of Forestry, Territory of Hawaii, as a botanical collector (primarily self-taught)
1911: Transferred to the College of Hawaii as a botanist, placed in charge of the herbarium
1913: Became a naturalized citizen
1919: Was officially appointed professor of systematic botany
1920: Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, Bureau of Plant Industry, U.S.D.A., sent Rock to Indochina, Siam, and Burma in search of chaulmoogra seeds, the first usable cure for Hansen’s disease
1922: Took up residence in Likiang
1923: National Geographic Society took over sponsorship of Rock’s travels
19241927: Rock led Harvard’s expedition to West China and Tibet and then rested in America
19271930: Led the National Geographic Society’s Southwest ChinaTibet expedition
1930: Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology sent Rock to China for two years; honorary law degree granted by Baylor University
19321933: University of California Botanical Garden underwrote Rock’s research
1935: Conflicts between Chinese nationalists and communists forced Rock to evacuate his library
1938: Japanese bombing of Kunming made Rock evacuate library to Indochina
1940: Rock led the National Museum’s expedition to Annam and Cambodia
1941: Japanese bombing destroyed the plates of Rock’s four-volume work at a printer in Shanghai
1944: Rock evacuated by plane to the United States, where he became an expert consultant and geographic specialist; fourteen years of work lost at sea
19451950: Was research fellow of the Harvard-Yenching Institute, returning to China late in 1946
1949: “Bandits” threatened Likiang, forcing Rock to flee once again
19551957: Rock botanized back in Hawaii
1962: Honorary doctor of science degree awarded by the University of Hawaii, where Rock was professor of Oriental studies, shortly before his death
Rock was first sent to China in the early 1920s by the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) to collect seeds of a tree that later were used in the treatment of leprosy. His explorations resulted in the introduction of conifers, rhododendrons (493 species), potentilla, and primula to the U.S. Nonetheless, biographer Hubert Rhodes wrote in 1956 that Rock’s collection processcollecting all plants, not just searching for exoticshad important implications and opened possibilities for reforestation in North America’s severest northern climates. Rock also introduced blight-resistant chestnuts. He deposited a sizable collection of birds and mammals at the U.S. National Museum, the Arnold Arboretum, and Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. During his later years, botanizing back in Hawaii in the 1950s, Rock noted ominously that many native species he had collected earlier in his career had vanished completely.
“Rock’s most outstanding characteristic was his breadth of vision,” Egbert Walker wrote of him in 1962. Indeed, Rock’s interests included linguistics, herbarium and collection development, ethnography, and photography. He even developed his photographs in the field and used them to illustrate his scientific and popular publications, notably in a photojournalist series of nine articles for National Geographic Magazine from 1922 to 1935. His efforts in linguistics are widely recognized; he spent years collecting and translating 8,000 volumes of original Naxi literature, including their religious tracts. Naxi manuscripts in the Library of Congress are from Rock; the Library’s Web site, lcweb.loc.gov/acq/devpol/colloverviews/tibetan.html, claims that “the complete Coni redaction (317 volumes), which was acquired by Joseph Rock in 1928, is one of only a few known to still exist today.” Rock’s Naxi dictionary, over which he labored for so many years, was finally published after his death.
Scope and content note
In addition to the biographical sources listed at the end of this article, the Hunt Institute holds a collection of photographs of Rock, a selection of the explorer’s papers, and contemporary slides of some locations and people that Rock knew (taken and donated by Dr. Norman S. Track). The Rock collection at the Institute consists of five boxes of correspondence and notes, and miscellaneous oversized items. The boxes are primarily correspondence regarding Rock’s work on the Naxi people of the Yünnan province and his dictionary of their language. Carbon copies of 12 of Rock’s 1920s letters to David Fairchild (18691954), then head of the Bureau of Plant Industry, recount the rhododendrons and other plants Rock saw and collected, the threats his traveling party received, scenery, and Yunnan native life. Box 1 contains correspondence with the staff of the Far Eastern and Russian Institute at the University of Washington; staff at the Anthropos Institute in Fribourg, Germany; Richard Othon Meisezahl (19061992), Johannes Schubert (fl. 19351961), Rolf Stein (fl. 19381952), Wolfgang Voigt (b. 1911), Giuseppe Tucci (b. 1894) and Antonio Gargano (fl. 19561958) from the Instituto Italiano per il medio ed Estremo Oriente in Rome; staff of the National Geographic Society; and Rock’s nephews Robert and Hans. Box 2 includes correspondence with Franz E. Wimmer (18811961), David Fairchild, and the staff of the botanical gardens at Kew, Edinburgh, and Copenhagen, as well as passports and notes. Boxes 3 and 4 hold general correspondence and accounts, arranged by date (19081963). Box 5 houses Rock’s naturalization certificate, mail delivered after his death, postcards and Christmas cards, address book and miscellaneous addresses. Oversized items in this collection include Rock’s Baylor degree, six U.S.D.A. certificates of introduction (19131934), and a collection of large Asian passports and visas, beautifully hand-lettered and -colored.
Biographical source materials
Anonymous. 18 July 1924. [U.S. National Museum reports receiving 1,600 well-prepared Chinese bird skins from Rock.] Smithsonian Local Notes: Issued Every Other Week for the Information of the Employees of the Smithsonian Institution and Its Branches.
Anonymous. 26 September 1924. [National Museum reports receiving a large botanical collection made in southeast Asia by Rock.] Smithsonian Local Notes: Issued Every Other Week for the Information of the Employees of the Smithsonian Institution and Its Branches.
Anonymous. 29 January 1928. Congress library gets Tibetan books: Botanist discovered volumes while taking refuge in monastery. New York Times. P. 12, col. 1.
Anonymous. [ca.1930.] Mountains of mystery: Vivid story of Dr. Rock’s expedition. Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle.
Anonymous. 21 March 1934. Ancient Yunnan, tucked away in inner China, beckons savant for another period of exile. Washington Post.
Anonymous. 13 April 1962. UH notes birthday, gives birthday degrees. Honolulu Advertiser.
Anonymous. 6 December 1962. Dr. Joseph Rock, naturalist, dies. Honolulu Advertiser.
Anonymous. 8 December 1962. Obituaries. Washington Post.
Chock, A. K. 1963. J. F. Rock, 18841962. Newslett. Hawaiian Bot. Soc. 2(1).
Degener, O. 17 December 1938. Chaulmoogra oil history is traced by Hawaii scientist. Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
Goodspeed, T. H. 1933. The University of California Botanical Garden Expedition to Western China and Tibet. Science 78(2016).
Henry, T. 14 June 1929. Explorers brave dangers of Muli. Washington Star.
Rhodes, H. L. 1956. J. F. Rock’s expedition to Northwest China (19241927). Baileya 4(2): 7080.
Rock, J. F. 1922. Hunting the chaulmoogra tree. Natl. Geogr. Mag. 41(3).
Rogers, W. 27 May 1930. Dr. Rock relates tales of thrilling personal adventures in Yun-nan. Baylor Lariat 23(157).
Sutton, S. B. January 1982. Joseph Rock: “Foreign Prince” of China’s Western Provinces. Discovery.
Walker, E. 1963. Obituaries: Joseph F. Rock. Pl. Sci. Bull. 9(2): 78.
Individual and group portraits of this subject are available from the Hunt Institute portrait collection. Thumbnails of the individual and group portrait holdings are available as PDFs for research purposes. For publication-quality images, contact the Archivist to place an order.
Biographical citations for this subject are available from the Hunt Institute biographical collection as a PDF.
Rock’s papers are at Harvard: http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/home?_collection=oasis
Rock’s photographs are at: http://www.pratyeka.org/rock/