By Katie Fenster, Department of Botany Intern
Photograph of Joseph F. Rock
Joseph Francis Rock was an Austrian-born U.S. citizen who spent most of his career in Asia. For my summer internship with the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History, I’ve been researching the lives of botanists whose collections are housed at the museum. For my research I’ve consulted journals, online sources, and other materials to investigate the lives of scientists whose public renown is often meager in comparison with the value of their work. Luckily enough for me, the original field books of some of these researchers, including Rock, are housed here in the museum’s collections. These field books provide primary source information about the botanists, so that even though they did not have celebrity-style publicity, I can learn about their lives.
Rock moved to the United States in his early 20s, becoming a professor of botany at the College of Hawaii in 1911 at the age of 27. Though Rock had a half-decade worth of experience studying Hawaiian flora before this appointment, he did not possess a graduate degree.
Rock’s largely self-learned expertise on Hawaiian flora served him well. In1919, he was selected by the USDA to botanize in South East Asia. He worked for the USDA until 1924, and then for the next twenty-six years, Rock traveled throughout Asia, working for various U.S. institutions including Harvard University and National Geographic. His research was in the fields of botany and anthropology.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History now houses Rock’s field books from his time in South East Asia working for the USDA. These field books reveal Rock’s progression in knowledge as he became more familiar with the local flora. The notations accompanying plant numbers of his earliest collections begin with vague descriptors including “tree,” and “shrub.” Despite the lack of specific classification names, as I read Rock’s detailed note on each plant, I could easily imagine the flora. For example, when describing plant 8755, he notes “alpine plants forming nests [of] tubular flowers [that are] purplish blue to reddish lavender [and are] covering up mossy boulders in [the] alpine region of Lila.” Even as Rock learned to identify genera of his subjects, Rock maintained his meticulous note-taking. Rock used colorful metaphors in his 1920 journal, describing a species of castanopsis as “a leguminous shrub [that is] densely pubescent with seed pods erect on the upper surface of the branches.”
Included with the pages of this journal is a beautiful, detailed map of a river that his crew explored. This map incorporates camp locations, dates, scenery that Rock photographed and, a local myth about the red cliff at Pa Wing Choo. The story goes that Princess Rata and her lover were escaping from her disapproving father via horseback when they tumbled to their death off the legendary cliffs.
Page 3 of a 9-page hand-drawn map detailing Joseph Rock's route.
|Page 6 of a 9-page hand-drawn map detailing Joseph Rock's route.
I had a blast exploring Rock’s field books, and I think the coolest part about them is that, though they were written almost 100 years ago, the data within them is still relevant today. For instance, some of Rock’s photographs document indigenous peoples prior to assimilation and provide insight into their cultures at a specific point in time. Additionally, his plant specimens and plant descriptions can be compared to similar specimens collected today, to research species variation and change over time. In these ways, Rock’s research and the research of many other botanists and anthropologists remain timeless.
Chock, Alvin K. “Joseph F. Rock 1884-1062.” Taxon 12 (April 1963):89-100.
Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. “Joseph Frances Charles Rock (1884-1962).” http://huntbot.andrew.cmu.edu/HIBD/Departments/Archives/Archives-HR/Rock.shtml
Rock, Joseph F. Field Notes, National Herbarium Botany Library (1920-1924).
Wagner, Jeffrey. “The Botanical Legacy of Joseph Rock.” Arnold Arboretum, n.d. http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/860.pdf