Joseph Rock first went to China in 1913, on a brief visit when he was almost thirty years old. He was taking a world tour after taking extended leave from his position as a botanical researcher at the newly-established University of Hawaii. At a relatively young age, he had already achieved a great deal – in fact his accomplishments at 30 would have been regarded by many other men as sufficient reward for a lifetime’s work.
From humble beginnings as the son of a Viennese servant he had emigrated to the US and had become a respected university academic and author of several landmark scientific publications that had garnered international acclaim. One of these, The Indigenous Trees of Hawaii is still a classic reference text on the subject. How had he done it?
Josef Franz Karl Rock was born in 1884 in Vienna - at the time one of Europe’s great cities, the sophisticated capital of the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother died when he was only six, and he was raised by his father and sister. It was not a happy childhood - his father worked as a servant for a Polish aristocrat, and he was a devout Roman Catholic who hoped his son Josef would enter the priesthood.
But young Josef had other ideas. From an early age he developed an interest in foreign lands and their languages. When he was 10 he visited Egypt with his father and picked up some Arabic – a language he continued to learn until the age of 16, when he was able to become a part-time teacher of Arabic. He had a keen intellect and yet was also stubborn and egotistical. His inquiring mind was stultified by the rigid system of schooling in Austria and so he took to teaching himself languages and studying books alone to satisfy his need for learning.
The adolescent Josef often skipped classes to wander the streets and parks of the wonderful city of ‘Wien’ and he dreamed of great adventures. Rock mixed with the Arab and Turkish traders at Vienna’s Prater Park and taught himself to read and write Chinese characters, imagining that he would one day travel to the distant and exotic capital of China at Peking.
Living as he did in the household of a Count, Rock developed an appreciation of grand clothes, high culture, music and civilised manners, even though he didn’t have the means to enjoy such fine things or mix in such company. Josef Rock was a pauper and could barely afford a decent suit, let alone to go to university. Rebelling against his father’s insistence that he enter a seminary, Rock instead took to drifting around Europe, picking up odd jobs where he could and living off remittances from his older sister in Vienna.
Like many impoverished people of that era, Rock developed tuberculosis, a disease that was to shape his destiny. A spell in the warm Mediterranean climate of Malta seemed to help his lungs for a while, but the jobless and penniless Rock was eventually forced to work his passage back to wintery Hamburg, where his consumptive, blood-stained tubercular cough returned.
When his father died, the young Rock’s inheritance was a few meagre artefacts such as a gold watch, which he was able to sell and scrape together the cost of a passage by ship to New York. Like many Europeans at the turn of the century, Rock decided to try his chances in the New World.
Arriving broke and alone in the United States, Rock continued to drift, working as a dishwasher, interspersed with periods of studying English at college and staying in hospital to get treatment for his tuberculosis. Living on his wits but making no friends, Rock moved from New York to Waco, Texas, then passed a few months in Mexico before eventually ending up in San Francisco, still recovering form the devastating earthquake of 1906. Rock was still plagued by tuberculosis, and decided that the warmer climate of Hawaii offered his only chance of better health, and so he took a ship to Honolulu.
It had only been 25 years since American Marines had landed in the subtropical kingdom of Hawaii and usurped power from Queen Liliuokalani in favour of US sugar plantation owners. The islands were still an undeveloped and relatively unexplored backwater, with a scattered population of fewer than 150,000 people.
As a seemingly educated and urbane European, Rock was able to talk himself into a job at a local school, teaching Latin and natural history. And despite having no formal training in science, he excelled, in part due to his enthusiasm for teaching himself about the natural world through field trips. Rock enjoyed being out of doors, and found it was good for his lungs.
After a year, with his tuberculosis still flaring up during his indoor confinement in the clssroom, Rock left the school to take up an outdoor job with the government forestry department, hoping this would help his lungs. The legend here is that Rock barged his way into the Hawaiian department of forestry and told them that they must have a herbarium - and that he was the man to create it for them. Whatever the truth, Rock was engaged by the department as a botanical collector, tasked with collecting seeds and specimens of rare Hawaiian trees and shrubs.
The now anglicised Joseph Rock applied himself with diligence and enterprise to his new role as plant colelctor. He was fortunate in arriving at a time when little was known about the flora of the Hawaiian Islands, and also because the other two foresters working for the department seemed to have neither the inclination nor the ability to get out into the field to collect, classify and study the native plants, trees, flowers and seeds. Joseph Rock had found his vocation.
Over the next three years Rock embarked on a series of wide-ranging and comprehensive plant-hunting trips around the islands of Hawaii, and he pursued botanical investigations on behalf of the forestry department with zeal and scholarly thoroughness. Rock was a firm believer in being out in the field rather than cooped up in an office as an “armchair botanist”.
In remote corners of the islands Rock would seek help from ranchers and plantation owners, charming their wives and children with his European manners and regaling them with exciting stories of his travels and adventures. He also studied the botanical textbooks and taught himself from the scientific literature. Within a couple of years he had published his first botanical paper and mounted an award-winning exhibit of Hawaiian flora.
After another year, the up and coming Rock believed he had accrued enough experience in botany to try a move into academia. In later years he styled himself as “Dr” Rock, and some have portrayed him as a charlatan for doing this, claiming he faked his qualifications and conned his way into positions that he was not qualified for. Perhaps there is an element of truth in this, for the servant’s boy from status-conscious Vienna must surely have craved the prestige of being a “Herr Doktor”.
Nevertheless, Rock’s scholarly achievements in botany alone, not to mention his later anthropological work, would surely merit a PhD, even if he was never formally awarded one. He joined the faculty of the College of Hawaii – forerunner to the university – in 1911 and was to spend a very productive decade of research and scholarship there, rising to become Professor of Systematic Botany. He continued to spend much of his time in the field, collecting specimens and getting to know every inch of the islands and their plants.
In the years before the Great War, Joseph Rock published prodigiously in scientific journals using English – his second language – and he wrote three major books on his subject. Rock also had a few students, but proved to be a hard taskmaster with a reputation for moodiness and an explosive temper. As the saying goes, he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
After a few years at the College of Hawaii Joseph Rock felt sufficiently secure enough to take time off to make a trip around the world. Travelling via Guam and the Philippines, he arrived in Hong Kong in October 1913 for a brief stopover en route to Europe. In Kowloon, the young academic émigré thrilled at being taken for a ride on a rickshaw pulled by a fellow human being, and like modern day visitors spent time shopping in the densely packed streets of the young British colony. Rock then visited Guangzhou to see the ‘real China’.
He disembarked at the Anglo-French traders’ enclave of Shamian Island on the Pearl River in the centre of the city, and was taken over the small bridge, past the Chinese sentries to enter the new Republic of China. It had been only a year or so since the Manchu Qing dynasty had been overthrown by military forces and the Emperor Pu Yi forced to abdicate following nationalist uprisings that had originated in Guangzhou.
As Rock toured the streets of old Canton, he was delighted to find that it matched all his childhood expectations. The warren of streets, the smells, the noise, the markets and craft shops … the bustling crowds ordered by his rickshaw collies to “make way for the foreign devil”… and Rock noted that his European presence was resented by many, who cursed at him and kicked at his rickshaw chair: “It was the most interesting place I have seen or hope to see,” he wrote in his diary. Did he envisage then that he would be back in China within a few years, and would spend much of his plant-hunting career in th country?
By 1920, it seems Joseph Rock was unhappy at the College of Hawaii. Perhaps he was getting itchy feet. There was a dispute about the housing of his vast herbarium, a spat over which he felt upset enough to resign over. Rock travelled to mainland United States, hoping to find another position as a botanist. However, despite his excellent academic work in Hawaii, Rock’s lack of formal qualifications - a PhD in particular - may explain why he was rebuffed by institutions such as Harvard, and why he also found no openings in New York.
But Rock was fortunate in his timing. In the early 1920s, the US Department of Agriculture was looking for an enterprising plant collector to acquire samples of the chaulmoogra tree from Asia, because the bark of the tree was considered a possible cure for leprosy. This was a position for which Rock was ideally suited, and he was quickly hired by the department and sent on his way to Siam (Thailand). There, he mounted an expedition that travelled up through the far north of the country, into Burma and ultimately back into Bengal, India.
It was on this preliminary Asian trip that Rock penned the first of what would be many articles for National Geographic magazine. Rock also proved to be an industrious and prolific plant collector, and the USDA were very satisfied with his results. They were particularly impressed with Rock’s thoroughness in annotating, packing and cataloguing all his specimens. On his return, the department suggested Rock mount a further plant collecting trip into western China, to seek out samples of blight-resistant chestnut trees to replace the chestnut trees that were dying out in America’s forests.
Rock headed back to China, to Kunming in Yunnan. Over the next year, his plant collecting activities in remote areas of Yunnan drew the attention of Gilbert Grosvenor the president of the National Geographic Society. Grosvenor was impressed enough to propose that the Society take over Rock’s sponsorship from the USDA, and to provide Rock with funds to allow him to travel further afield and for longer periods.
With this new source of generous funding, Joseph Rock would spend the next 18 months on an epic and productive plant collecting expedition across many remote areas of Yunnan, ranging from the tropical borders of Burma and Siam to the barren mountains and highland plateaus of eastern Tibet. He accumulated thousands of samples of seeds for obscure and previously uncollected plants and trees, as well as around 60,000 herbarium samples. All were labelled and packed off to Washington.
Gilbert Grosvenor later described Rock’s collection of 493 different rhododendrons gathered by the National Geographic Expedition as “one of the most remarkable ever brought together.” Joseph Rock was making a name for himself.
The society donated many of Rock’s samples to his former sponsor, the USDA. The secretary for the department, Henry Wallace, wrote to Grosvenor to express his admiration of “Professor Rock’s” efforts.
“Members of this department have followed with interest [Rock’s] wanderings of the last 18 months, and have particularly marvelled at his success in packing and forwarding his collection of seeds to Washington,” said Wallace.
The seeds and plant specimens collected by Rock were distributed to botanical gardens in the US and in Great Britain, as well as to private nurseries and museums in the west. Rock had also collected 1600 samples of birds and 60 of animals from Yunnan, all of which were meticulously prepared and documented. His collection was described as one of the most unusual and “the most important single contribution” to the Smithsonian National Museum natural history section at that time.
This was the trip on which Joseph Rock made his ‘dash to Muli’ that became the subject of an article in National Geographic magazine. Muli was where the Rock legend and myth building really began.