Joseph Rock: Some Musings on a Renaissance Man
Joseph Rock. Not the first name that comes to mind when rhododendron enthusiasts think about early twentieth century plant hunters. George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward clearly outrank him. It has been twenty years since Gwen Bell gave her talk about him and wrote her excellent ARS Journal article. Rock deserves more current recognition than he gets. The American Rhododendron Society benefited quite directly from the seeds he sent under contract to what is now the Portland Chapter in the late 1940s. He was one of the early recipients of the Society's Gold Medal in 1954. ARS now has a Hawai'i Chapter, and a Western Regional Conference is coming up in Hilo in the fall of 2004. Rock's enduring legacy to Hawaiian botany, medicine and ecology can't be overstated and probably overshadows his importance to the rhododendron world. His contributions to popular and U.S. government understanding of early and mid-twentieth century Western China were more significant than those of any other single person at the time.
It may be a bit nervy to write about Joseph Rock in the ARS journal, realizing that some current members knew him or knew someone who did and many of us have plants from his seeds or from plants descended from them. Mike Bones, who precipitated this article by loaning me a biography of Rock, has Rhododendron davidsonianum and R. rubiginosum from Rock's seeds. We have an R. augustinii ‘Rock's Sky Blue' whose ancestor would probably have grown from his seeds. The Society's well-remembered Chuck Miller gave that plant to us as he gave so many plants to lots of folks. The list undoubtedly goes on and on, given that Rock sent enough seeds to Portland to "plant the whole of Oregon." Many members know a great deal about him, but my understanding of him is in a different context. The name evokes memories as if I actually knew Joseph Rock even though he died in Honolulu six years before I began working in Hawai'i in 1968. For twenty-five years I taught field biology classes at Maui Community College and gained much of my early knowledge of Hawaiian ecosystems and endemic plants from someone who knew Joseph Rock well. Edwin Bonsey, who taught physics in the high schools on Maui, was long retired when I arrived and he took me under his wing. Ed was a recognized authority on ferns in Hawai'i, both endemic and introduced. Visiting botanists would contact Ed whenever they wanted to visit remote areas on the island. Ed described Joseph Rock exactly the way everyone who knew him does in the various writings about him. Rock knew exactly where every rare or common endemic plant was on each island in the Hawaiian archipelago. He could return to the exact spot where a given plant had been years before no matter how remote the location. Often the plant was gone, a victim of the ongoing habitat degradation in Hawai'i. Rock, though German, insisted on the British (or Chinese?) tradition of teatime. No matter where he might be in the forest on Maui he would stop at 4 p.m., light his spirit stove and have his tea, complete with silver service. He was a fanatic about recording exact details about plants and about his photography, producing undoubtedly the very best photographs of endemic trees in Hawai'i, many of which are now extinct. Ed was the same way, at least about knowing the locations of plants. He would take me out on some obscure track in the wet forest and dash off the trail at a location I could never find again to look at an endemic fern or jewel orchid. He always expected me to remember all he taught me. I didn't, but he and his memories of Joseph Rock have certainly stuck with me.
Rock was a fascinating character. Born in Vienna in 1884, he was the son of an impoverished steward in the household of Count Potocki. His sensitivity about his humble beginnings stayed with him throughout his life. Looking at life "upstairs" and comparing it to his family situation led Joseph to feel that his childhood was terrible. Joseph's father had sired an illegitimate son before he married Joseph's mother and that half brother to Rock was always considered a part of the family. His mother, Franciska, died when Joseph was only six. His older sister took over the mother figure role and constantly took in waifs to add to the family burden and confuse Joseph as to his position in it. Joseph's father wanted him to be a priest, but he resisted Papa at every turn; Joseph wanted to be an adventurer. He did just average work in school, probably because he was bored. At age 13 he became fascinated with China and began teaching himself Chinese.
Rock left home as soon as he graduated from high school in 1902. He wandered through Europe and Africa for several years between bouts with tuberculosis. He sailed to the United States, worked as a dishwasher in New York, went to Texas in the winter of 1906-07 and on to San Francisco less than a year after the great earthquake. Against the advice of his doctors, Rock sailed for Honolulu. The Hawaiian Islands came as close to being home for him as any place outside of China.
By the time he arrived in Honolulu he had various degrees of fluency in ten languages. Rock could impress everyone he met with his social graces and wit as well as his intelligence and great fund of knowledge. All of these qualities gained him status and an enduring place among the missionary descendants and other Kama'aina families who controlled Hawai'i's economics and politics in the early twentieth century. Rock gained primacy in Hawaiian Botany rapidly. He created a job for himself with the Board of Commissioners of Agriculture and Forestry collecting and documenting endemic Hawaiian plants and establishing an herbarium for the territorial foresters. It was a formidable and important undertaking. Hawai'i was and is far more diverse in its endemic flora and fauna than the Galapagos Islands made famous by Charles Darwin. The government foresters, chief among them Ralph Hosmer, knew little and apparently didn't care about endemic plants in Hawai'i. The major emphasis by the foresters at the time was to find exotic timber trees that could be used to replace the disappearing endemics such as Acacia koa. Hosmer Grove at the border of Haleakala National Park and Poli Poli Springs State Park on Maui feature conifers from all over the globe, typical examples of the mind set that native trees should be replaced with economically viable timber producers. The policy of replacement of endemics with exotics was still dominant during my early years on Maui.
In the process of collecting endemic plants and creating an herbarium, Rock acquired a knowledge about the native flora and the ecosystem that surpassed anything since William Hillebrand published his Flora of the Hawaiian Islands in 1888 when Rock was four years old. Using his new position with the College of Hawai'i as his authority and his friendship with the controlling Haole families as a funding base (the subscription list reads like a Who's Who of the dominant Kama'aina Haole families in Hawai'i), Rock published his definitive work in 1913. Rock's The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands rapidly became the major authority on endemic plants in Hawai'i. It remained so until the publication of the Manual of Flowering Plants of Hawai'i in 1990. The book was sufficiently important to be reprinted by the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden in 1974. At that time it was still acknowledged as the premier publication on the subject, both for its information and for its superb photography.
Joseph Rock taught systematic botany and possibly Chinese at the College (now University) of Hawai'i from 1911 until 1920. The definitive research on his life was done by Stephanne B. Sutton for her excellent Rock biography, published in 1974. Most of the material in this article that is not rhododendron-related or is not personal knowledge was taken from her book. Sutton's In China's Border Provinces states that Rock's higher education information lists the University of Vienna in the college catalogs but that he couldn't have gotten a degree there given what he was doing after he graduated from High School and before he appeared in Hawai'i. It wouldn't be too surprising to learn that Rock didn't have a degree, given that the college was four years old at the time he joined the faculty and that imposters still succeeded in the University of Hawai'i system in the 1960s. Later in his career he received an honorary doctorate from Baylor University, so he could use Dr. legally by the time ARS members met him. In any case, he was very successful and has left us a lasting, important written and photographic record of the flora of Hawai'i in the early twentieth century.
Rock left the College of Hawai'i after a disagreement over the disposition of the herbarium he had spent so much time assembling. At that point his dreamed-of career as adventurer in China began and what was perhaps his most important contribution to Hawaiian society was made. Research at the college about the time he decided to leave demonstrated that the oil from the seeds of the Chaulmoogra tree (Hydnocarpus kurzii), while very painful when applied, was effective in controlling leprosy. Leprosy was a very serious problem in Hawai'i as is obvious from the well-known Kalaupapa colony on Moloka'i where Hansen's Disease sufferers were isolated until mid-century. Rock landed a job with the U. S. Department of Agriculture searching out the seeds of the Chaulmoogra tree in Siam, Burma and India. The oil from the seeds proved to be the only valuable treatment for leprosy until modern antibiotics were developed, growing out of the need during World War II, and eliminated the practice of isolating patients on Moloka'i.
After the early twenties Joseph Rock never called anyplace but Western China his real home. He settled in Yunnan and spent most of the rest of his life there, though he took frequent breaks to visit his family in Europe and his friends and colleagues in the U.S. and the Territory of Hawai'i. By coincidence, when Rock first arrived in Yunnan, Sun Yat-Sen, generally considered to be the architect of modern China, was taking over the country. Sun had spent his childhood in Hawai'i and graduated from Maui High School. Probably Rock did not know of the Hawaiian connection and certainly Sun Yat-Sen didn't know about Joseph Rock at all.
First sent out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rock found a new sponsor in the National Geographic Society when government funding ran out. He sent numerous specimens to Washington and wrote ten articles for the magazine between 1922 and 1935. The Geographic liked his photography but finally got tired of having to edit his work to make it readable and incurring his wrath every time it did so. English was not Rock's first language even though he spoke it with very little accent. His written material is quite painful to read as is clear from reading his correspondence with ARS in 1948. The society and Rock parted company on terms that were apparently not very amicable.
Rock was sponsored by a series of institutions in addition to the USDA and National Geographic. Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, the National Museum and U.C. Berkeley were among his other major sponsors during his stays in China. Little by little, Rock's interests drifted away from botany and toward a fascination with the Nakhi tribe in Western Yunnan. Much of his time in China was spent in studying the Nakhi people. He worked at producing major works on their culture and on their ancient pictographic language. He saw this work as being more important than botany and as a result produced no work on the flora of the area, a shame given the superb botanical work he produced on Hawai'i earlier in his career.
With the onset of what became World War II Rock was forced to leave China. He moved himself and his extensive library to the University of Hawai'i and had a temporary, tempestuous relationship with the University. He went back to China and spent most of the war years there, becoming an invaluable asset to the United States military there, especially the Army Map Service. In 1944 he flew back to the U.S., sending his Nakhi manuscripts by ship. The ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo and most of his work on the Nakhi tribe went to the bottom of the ocean.
Following the war Rock persuaded Harvard's Yenching Institute and Arnold Arboretum to fund another trip to China so he could complete his Nakhi research and redo what had been lost. By the end of 1946 he was back in China. He was witness to and strongly affected by the lawlessness and spiraling inflation that acted against the success of Chaing Kai-shek's government and helped the communists come to power.
Rock suffered a bout of intestinal problems and intense neuralgia in facial nerves in 1948. For cures he went first to Hong Kong, then Europe, then Massachusetts General Hospital. When he arrived back in China the ARS letter from George Grace affirming the underwriting of seed collection had arrived. The correspondence from Rock and the italic footnotes in Volume 3 of the ARS Quarterly Bulletin make clear that the situation in China was chaotic. Sutton's biography details enough about Rock's tribulations during that time to make it seem a miracle that any of the seeds the group underwrote ever got back to them in Portland. They did, though, and were planted and grown extensively. So many excess seeds were received that Rhododendron, Primula and Meconopsis seeds were advertised for sale to the public in the ARS bulletins for 1949 and 1950.
In early August 1949, Rock finally gave up and left China never to return. He kept hoping things would change and Westerners would be welcome again. He continued to talk about new expeditions such as the one to Nepal mentioned in the Volume 4 of the Bulletin but was never able to mount another one to his beloved Yunnan. He lived for a while in Europe and Washington State, selling the library he had haggled over with the University of Hawai'i and Harvard to the University of Washington. Finally, during the last few years of his life, he returned to Hawai'i, finished his Nakhi dictionary and threw himself again into Hawaiian botany. He died in Honolulu in December 1962 at the age of 78 and is buried on Oahu.
Joseph Rock's legacy to us is immense. It is impossible to know at this distance in time how many plants in members' gardens are from Rock's seeds or from plants descended from them. A multitude, without a doubt. It could be argued that the Portland origins of ARS might not have succeeded without the impetus provided by the challenge of growing Rock's seeds into flowering rhododendrons. His collection numbers listed in the Royal Horticultural Society's Rhododendron Handbook are truly astounding. Between 1923 and 1949 he collected 1,423 specimens with RHS numbers. By comparison, George Forrest collected 1,435 and Frank Kingdon-Ward 764. Those are just the RHS numbers for Rock, who never collected specifically for any British entity. Rock's contributions to Hawaiian botany were truly impressive and lasting. It's only fitting that in 1969 Dr. Harold St. John, one of the more prolific UH systematic botanists, should have named an endemic lobelia, now surviving only on Moloka'i's inaccessible cliffs overlooking the Kalaupapa peninsula leper colony, Brighamia rockii. After all, Rock, the collector of Chaulmoogra seeds for the Moloka'i lepers, had recorded seeing one in 1919 on Lana'i in an area so inaccessible he couldn't collect it.
Footnote: Research is like an onion. Every time you peel back a layer, there's another one underneath. This article was supposed to end with the paragraph above but on the evening it was going to be submitted, I ran across a reference to Joseph Rock in Science Magazine's ”Net Watch.” Arnold Arboretum, as a part of its ongoing research of the "Asian Biodiversity Hotspot", beginning well before Joseph Rock and continuing today, has digitized many pieces of Rock's personal correspondence and unpublished research as well as 273 of his photographs. Anyone interested in Joseph Rock can download images of many of Rock's original maps, documents and photos. Most of the photographs are not of plants, but about a half dozen show Rhododendron and there are many other plant species represented. The photos collectively show clearly that he was indeed a master photographer as well as a thorough, observing documenter and a gutsy explorer.
1.Arnold Arboretum. 2003. www.arboretum.harvard.edu. Harvard University web site containing many of Rock's materials along with much other documentation of the arboretum's ongoing interest in the three gorges area.
2. Bacher, John G. 1949. The Dr. Rock rhododendron seeds. Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society, 3:4:173-176.
3. Bell, Gwen. 1983. The story of Joseph Rock. Journal of the American Rhododendron Society, 37:4:202.
4. Brydon, P. H. 1950. A summary of Dr. Rock's 1948 expedition to the Yunnan-Tibet border. Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society. 4:1: 30-34.
5. Grace, George. 1948. Dr. Joseph Rock Letter. Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society. 2:4:69-70.
6. ______. 1949. Dr. Joseph Rock expedition. Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society, 3:4: 103-113.
7. Hanson, Ruth. 1974. History of the American Rhododendron Society. ARS Quarterly Reprints, Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society, Volumes 1,2,3, pp. 5-11.
8. Hillebrand, W. F. 1888. Flora of the Hawaiian Islands. Williams & Northgate, London. 673pp.
9. Neal, Marie C. 1965. In Gardens of Hawaii. Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu. 924 pp.
10. Rock, Joseph F. 1913. The Indigenous Trees of the Hawaiian Islands. Printed under patronage, Honolulu. Reprinted by Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden, 1974, Lawai, Kaua'i. 548 pp.
11.______. 1922. Hunting the Chaulmoogra Tree. National Geographic Magazine. V.XLI, pp. 248-276.
12. _____. 1926. Through the Great River Trenches of Asia. National Geographic Magazine. V. L, pp 133-186.
13. _____. 1950. Dr. Rock's proposed expedition to Nepal. Letter to ARS in Quarterly Newsletter of the American Rhododendron Society, 4:4:150.
14. Royal Horticultural Society. 1998. The Rhododendron Handbook. RHS, London. 352 pp.
15. Sutton, Stephanne B. 1974. In China's Border Provinces, the Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, Botanist, Explorer. Hastings House. N.Y. 334 pp.
16. Wagner, Warren L., Darrel R. Herbst and S. H. Sommer. 1990. Manual of the Flowering Plants of Hawaii. University of Hawaii Press and Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu. 2V, 1854 pp.
Bruce Palmer is Professor Emeritus in the Community College System of the University of Hawaii. He taught various introductory biology courses at Maui Community College from 1968 until 1993. He was also Dean of Instruction at the college from 1980-83 and 1990-93. He currently resides with his wife, Nelda, in Cutten, California. The Palmers have been members of the Eureka Chapter, ARS, since 1994.