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Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962) papers, 1922-1962.


This collection is comprised of publications, field notes, photographs, and correspondence by Joseph Francis Charles Rock. Rock worked as a botanist, anthropologist, explorer, linguist, and author for various agencies while travelling in Asia. Rock’s affiliation with the Arnold arboretum was that of a researcher in China and Tibet from 1924-1927. The bulk of this collection consists of correspondence, records, and images developed during that visit


  • 1922-1962


General Physical Description note

2 cartons, 9 boxes, 9 volumes, 2 binders, and 3 oversize folders

2 cartons, 9 boxes, 9 volumes, 2 binders, and 3 oversize folders.

Terms of Access

This collection is open for research. Researchers seeking to examine archival materials are strongly encouraged to make an appointment. The Director, or an office of origin, may place restrictions on the use of some or all of its records. The extent and length of the restriction will be determined by the Director, office of origin, and the Archivist and will be enforced equally for all researchers.

Terms of Use

The copyright is held by The President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Arnold Arboretum Archives of Harvard University. The copyright on some materials in the collection may be held by the original author or the author's heirs or assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining written permission from the holder(s) of copyright and the Arnold Arboretum Archives prior to publishing any quotations or images from materials in this collection.

Photocopies may be made at the discretion of the Arnold Arboretum Archives staff. Permission to make photocopies does not constitute permission to reproduce or publish materials outside the bounds of the fair use guidelines.


6.75 linear feet
The primary content of Joseph Rock's papers at the Arnold Arboretum consists of material created during Rock's Arboretum expeditions to China and Tibet during the years 1924-27. The collection consists of handwritten field notes, over 250 letters and telegrams written from the field to Charles Sargent and others at the Arnold Arboretum, an extensive photograph collection, Rock's hand-drawn maps, and other documents related to the 1924-27 expedition. The collection also includes unpublished manuscripts regarding Chinese customs and politics, as well as personal correspondence with family and contacts in Europe and America.

Biographical Note

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. From 1920 until 1949, he explored and collected in Asia for various United States institutions and agencies, such as: The National Geographic Society, U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, and Harvard University. Several of Rock's travelogues were published in the National Geographic Magazine. Today, Rock’s contribution is still utilized by the scholarly community and best summarized by Tibetan and Himalayan Studies scholar Michael Aris in his book Lamas, Princes, and Brigands: Joseph Rock’s Photographs of the Tibetan Borderlands of China, 1992: “Rock’s real competence lay in the identification and collection of plants, the decipherment of the Naxi pictographs, and the compilation of maps — visual skills requiring enormous mental determination and physical stamina. His photographs, too, often taken under very difficult circumstances, provide eloquent testimony to his drive for classifiable visual evidence.”

Continuing a fifty-year Arnold Arboretum tradition of sending plant explorers to Asia, it was an elderly Charles S. Sargent (1841-1927), the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, who initiated Joseph Rock's expedition to northwestern China and northeastern Tibet in 1924. Seeking bird specimens from this area, the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology cooperated in the project, which lasted from 1924-27. 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 the Yangtze River, the Kansu-Szechuan border, in the Tebbu region in southwestern Kansu, and around the Koki Nor Lake in northeastern Tibet.

On this 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. From 1927, Rock continued his work in China for various institutions. He was a research fellow at the Harvard Yenching Institute between 1945 and 1950, where he published his linguistic research.

In 1949, the political situation forced Rock's departure from China. In 1962, while living in Hawaii, a heart attack took the life of Joseph Rock, a world-renowned personality.

Sources: "J.F. Rock, 1884-1962" by Alvin K. Chock (Honolulu) Taxon 12 (3 (April 1963) p.89-102; Charles Sprague and the Arnold Arboretum by S. B. Sutton, Harvard University Press 1970, p.267-275; The Turbulent Career of Joseph Rock, botanist, explorer by S. B. Sutton, New York: Hastings House, 1974; Lamas, Princes, and Brigands: Joseph Rock's photographs of the Tibetan borderlands of China by Michael Aris, New York: China House Gallery, China Institute in America, 1992, pp.14-15. See also “Bodies Real and Virtual: Joseph Rock and Enrico Caruso in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands” by Erik Mueggler Comparative Studies in Society and History 2011;53(1):6–37.


The Rock collection is organized in seven series: Series I: Unpublished writings. Series II: Expedition records and distributions. Series III: Correspondence. Series IV: Publications. Series V: Images. Series VI: Maps. Series VII: Extracted Diary Transcriptions.


Over six hundred of the expedition photographs were commissioned by the Arnold Arboretum, the remainder were donated by other institutions. The manuscripts and much of the personal correspondence were purchased by the Arnold Arboretum from Rock’s nephew Robert Koc. The correspondence files date from their inception as part of the Arboretum’s institutional records. Rock's field notes and maps from northwestern China and northeastern Tibet were returned from the Botany Libraries/Gray Herbarium Archives to the Arnold Arboretum Archives in February 1992. The photo albums were transferred from the USDA to the Arnold Arboretum.

Processing Information

Carin Dohlman, 1991; revised August, 2008. Revised June 2011, Kayleigh Hinckley, Liz Francis, Sheila Connor.
Joseph Francis Charles Rock (1884-1962) papers, 1922-1962: Guide.
Finding aid prepared by Liz Francis
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Arnold Arboretum Archives Repository

The Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library is a specialized collection devoted to the study of temperate woody plants. We collect works on botany, horticulture, floras, urban forestry and taxonomy. The library contains more than 25,000 volumes and 40,000 photographs, and includes an archive that both documents the Arboretum's history and is a repository for 19th, 20th, and 21st century horticultural and botanical collections.

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