The last of the great plant hunters employed by Charles Sprague Sargent, Rock was a botanist, anthropologist, explorer, linguist, and author. He had immigrated to the United States from his native Austria in 1905, but between 1920 and 1949 Rock lived in China for extended periods, exploring, collecting plants and animals, and taking pictures for various United States agencies and other institutions, including The National Geographic Society, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Arnold Arboretum.
Find out more about plants from Rock’s expeditions growing at the Arnold Arboretum.
286 images (1920–22)
Joseph Rock, botanist, anthropologist, explorer, linguist, and author, immigrated to the United States from his native Austria in 1905. From 1907 to 1920, Rock lived in Hawaii where he became a self-taught specialist on the Hawaiian Flora. On the faculty of the College of Hawaii, Rock taught botany and published five books and numerous papers on the subject.
Beginning around 1910, research was being conducted at the College of Hawaii on the active agents in chaulmoogra oil which had historically been used to treat Hansen’s disease. In the early 1920s, David Grandison Fairchild (1869–1954) of the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, Bureau of Plant Industry, United States Department of Agriculture sent Rock, who was then in charge of the herbarium at the College, in search of the oily seeds of the East Indian chaulmoogra tree. Three hundred and twenty photographs from Yunnan Province document Rock’s eastern Asian travels during his 1920-22 expedition to the Indochinese Peninsula.
From 1920 until 1949, Rock continued to explore, photography, and collect plants in Asia for various United States institutions and agencies: U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, The National Geographic Society, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, and others. As a photojournalist, nine of Rock’s travelogues were published in the National Geographic Magazine between 1922 and 1935.
In 1924, it was an elderly Charles S. Sargent (1841-1927) who initiated Joseph Rock’s expedition for the Arboretum to China and Tibet. Wishing to obtain bird specimens from this area, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology cooperated in the project, which lasted until 1927. Sargent’s assignment to Rock was to collect plants and to photograph specimens along the Yellow River (Hwangho) and in the mountain ranges Amne Machin (Che-shih-shan) and the Richtofen (Chi-lien Shan-mo). Rock also collected along theYangtze River, the Kansu-Szechuan border, in the Tebbu region in southwestern Kansu, and around the Koki Nor Lake in northeastern Tibet.
On 1924 expedition Rock collected 20,000 herbarium specimens and many packages of propagative material. Although few new species were found, Rock lived up to Sargent’s principal objective, which was to collect hardier forms of species that had already been collected by others farther south. The Arboretum distributed the seeds Rock collected to botanical and horticultural institutions in North America and in Europe. Rock also took numerous photographs and, independently, studied the cultures and languages of the local tribes. He is still remembered by the older villagers of Nguluko, (Yuhu) near the city of Lijiang, where he made his home base for many years.
Between 1945 and 1950, Rock was a research fellow at the Harvard Yenching Institute where he published his linguistic research. In 1949, the political situation forced Rock to leave China once again. By then a world-renowned personality, he returned to Hawaii where he became a professor of Oriental studies. Shortly before his death, caused by a heart attack, in 1962, the University of Hawaii awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science degree.
The Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962) papers, 1922-1962 finding aid is available on our website.