He was born in Vienna, Austria, but moved to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1907, where he became an authority on the flora there. As the Territory of Hawaii's first official botanist, he joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii in 1911, established its first herbarium, and served as its first curator from 1911 until 1920, when he left the university to spend the next few decades exploring the botany of Asia.
He began by hunting the Chaulmoogra tree in Burma, Thailand and Assam. From 1922 to 1949 he spent most of his time studying the flora, peoples and languages of southwest China, mainly in Yunnan, Sichuan, southwest Gansu and eastern Tibet. Many Asian plants that he collected can be seen in the Arnold Arboretum.
He was based near Lijiang in the village of Nguluko (Yuhu), and wrote many articles for the National Geographic magazine (see "Works and memory" below) about his expeditions to places such as Muli, Minya Konka (Gongga Shan), the three sacred peaks of Shenrezig, Jambeyang and Chanadorje in what is now known as Yading Nature Reserve, and the Salween (Nujiang) river. These articles brought him modest fame, and were said to have inspired the novel Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, about a fictional remote Himalayan community known as Shangri-La.
Rock was cherished for his eccentricities, as well as his knowledge of botany and of ethnic minorities. He always travelled with a complete set of silverware, which was laid out for him at mealtimes. He also travelled with a rubber bathtub, which his servants filled with hot water so that he could enjoy that most European of luxuries: a good soak in the bath.
Botanically, he had been preceded to Yunnan, one of the most interesting botanical hotspots in the world, by other, more accomplished botanists, in particular George Forrest and Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti, another Austrian, both of whom discovered and scientifically described many more plants than Rock did. Nevertheless, Rock's contributions to botanical knowledge were significant.
After 1949, he returned to Honolulu where he died in 1962.
In March 2009, the University of Hawaii at Manoa named its herbarium after him.
Works and memory
The spectacular Rock's Peony Paeonia rockii is named after Rock. Rock produced a 1,094-page dictionary, numerous scholarly papers, and two histories of the Nakhi (Naxi) people and language of northwestern Yunnan, which have been widely used for the study of Nakhi culture, language and religion.
The most important of his written works are:
- The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of Southwest China. 2 vols., illustrated. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948.
- A Nakhi-English encyclopedic dictionary. Rome: I.M.E.O., 1963.
- His National Geographic magazine articles:
"Banishing the Devil of Disease Among the Nashi: Weird Ceremonies Performed by an Aboriginal Tribe in the Heart of Yunnan Province" (1924) 46:473-499
"Land of the Yellow Lama: National Geographic Society Explorer Visits the Strange Kingdom of Muli, Beyond the Likiang Snow Range of Yunnan, China" (1924) 47: 447-491
"Experiences of a Lone Geographer: An American Agricultural Explorer Makes His Way through Brigand-Infested Central China En Route to the Amne Machin Range, Tibet" (1925) 48: 331-347
"Through the Great River Trenches of Asia: National Geographic Society Explorer Follows the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salwin Through Mighty Gorges" (1926) 50: 133-186
"Life among the Lamas of Choni: Describing the Mystery Plays and Butter Festival in the Monastery of an Almost Unknown Tibetan Principality in Kansu Province, China" (1928): 569-619
"Seeking the Mountains of Mystery: An Expedition on the China-Tibet Frontier to the Unexplored Amnyi Machen range, One of Whole Peaks Rivals Everest" (1930) 57:131-185
"Glories of the Minya Konka: Magnificent Snow Peaks of the China-Tibetan Border are Photographed at Close Range by a National Geographic Society Expedition" (1930) 58:385-437
"Konka Risumgongba, Holy Mountain of the Outlaws" (1931) 60:1-65
"Sungmas, the Living Oracles of the Tibetan Church" (1935) 68:475-486
- Michael Aris (1992) "Lamas, Princes, and Brigands. Joseph Rock's Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China", China Institute in America, New York City
- Sutton, S.B. (1974) "In China's Border Provinces: The Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, Botanist Explorer", New York
- Gore, R. (1997) "Joseph Rock (1922-1935): Our Man in China" National Geographic Magazine 191: 62-81
- Film: "A King in China" - A People and Places Production © 2003, Paul Harris (director)
- "Botanist, famed explorer honored at UH Manoa: Herbarium to carry name of Joseph F. Rock". 2009-03-06. http://www.hawaii.edu/cgi-bin/uhnews?20090306090000. Retrieved 2009-03-16.
- National Geographic, March 1922
- Gongga Shan, a mountain in Sichuan which (due to poor measuring equipment) Rock erroneously thought for a time to be the highest in the world.