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Constantine Rafinesque
(22 Oct 1783 - 18 Sep 1840)

French naturalist, traveller and writer who made extensive travels, including a large area of America, collecting, cataloging and naming huge numbers of plants. He published prolifically with ideas that could be brilliantly insightful, and sometimes careless or wrong.


from Science Sketches by David Starr Jordan (1885)

[p.153] IT is now nearly seventy years since the first student of our Western fishes crossed the Falls of the Ohio and stood on Indiana soil. He came on foot, with a note-book in one hand and a hickory stick in the other, and his capacious pockets were full of wild-flowers, shells, and toads. He wore “a long, loose coat of yellow nankeen, stained yellower by the clay of the roads, and variegated by the juices of plants.” In short, in all respects of dress, manners, and appearance, he would be described by the modern name of “tramp.” Nevertheless, no more remarkable figure has ever appeared in the annals of Indiana or in the annals of science. To me it has always possessed a peculiar interest; and so, for a few moments, I wish to call up before you the figure of Rafinesque, with his yellow nankeen coat, “his sharp tanned face, and his bundle of plants, under which a pedler would groan,” before it recedes into the shadows of oblivion.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was born in Constantinople in the year 1784. His father was a French merchant from Marseilles doing business in Constantinople, and his mother was a German girl, born in Greece, of the family name of Schmaltz. Rafinesque himself, son of a Franco-Turkish father [p.154] and a Graeco-German mother, was an American. Before he was a year old his life-long travels began, his parents visiting ports of Asia and Africa on their way to Marseilles. As a result of this trip, we have the discovery, afterward characteristically announced by him to the world, that “infants are not subject to sea-sickness.” At Marseilles his future career was determined for him; or, in his own language: “It was among the flowers and fruits of that delightful region that I first began to enjoy life, and I became a botanist. Afterward, the first prize I received in school was a book of animals, and I am become a zoologist and a naturalist. My early voyage made me a traveller. Thus, some accidents or early events have an influence on our fate through life, or unfold our inclinations.”l

Rafinesque read books of travel, those of Captain Cook, Le Vaillant, and Pallas especially; and his soul was fired with the desire “to be a great traveller like them. ... And I became such,” he adds tersely. At the age of eleven he had begun an herbarium, and had learned to read the Latin in which scientific books of the last century were written. “I never was in a regular college,” he says, “ nor lost my time on dead languages; but I spent it in reading alone, and by reading ten times more than is read in the schools. I have undertaken to read the Latin and Greek, as [p.155] well as the Hebrew, Sanskrit, Chinese, and fifty other languages, as I felt the need or inclination to study them.” At the age of twelve he published his first scientific paper, “Notes on the Apennines,” as seen from the back of a mule on a journey from Leghorn to Genoa. Rafinesque was now old enough to choose his calling in life. He decided to become a merchant; for, said he, “commerce and travel are linked.” At this time came the first outbreaks of the French Revolution, when the peasants of Provence began to dream of “castles on fire and castles combustible;” so Rafinesque’s prudent father sent his money out of France and his two sons to America.

In Philadelphia, Constantine Rafinesque became a merchant’s clerk, and his spare time was devoted to the study of botany. He tried also to study the birds; but he says, “The first bird I shot was a poor chickadee, whose death appeared a cruelty, and I never became much of a hunter.” During his vacations Rafinesque travelled on foot over parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia. He visited President Jefferson, who, he tells us, asked him to call again. In 1805, receiving an offer of business in Sicily, Rafinesque returned to Europe. He spent ten years in Sicily,— the land, as he sums it up, “of fruitful soil, delightful climate, excellent productions, perfidious men, and deceitful women.” Here in Sicily he discovered the medicinal squill, which, aided by the equally medicinal paregoric, was once a great specific for all childish ailments. He commenced gathering this in large quantities for shipment to England and Russia. The [p.156] Sicilians thought that he was using it as a dye-stuff; “and this,” said he, “I let them believe.” Nearly two hundred thousand pounds had been shipped by him before the secret of the trade was discovered, since which time the Sicilians have prosecuted the business on their own account. He began to turn his attention to the animals of the sea, and here arose his passion for ichthyology. The red-shirted Sicilian fishermen used to bring to him the strange creatures which came in their nets. In 1810 he published two works on the fishes of Sicily, and for our first knowledge of very many of the Mediterranean fishes we are indebted to these Sicilian papers of Rafinesque. It is unfortunately true, however, that very little real gain to science has come through this knowledge. Rafinesque’s descriptions in these works are so brief, so hasty, and so often drawn from memory, that later naturalists have been put to great trouble in trying to make them out. A peculiar, restless, impatient enthusiasm is characteristic of all his writings,— the ardor of the explorer without the patience of the investigator.2

In Sicily, Rafinesque was visited by the English ornithologist, William Swainson. Swainson seems to have been a great admirer of “the eccentric naturalist,” as he called him. Of him Rafinesque says: “Swainson often went with me to the mountains. He carried a butterfly-net to catch insects [p.157] with, and was taken for a crazy man or a wizard. As he hardly spoke Italian, I had once to save him from being stoned out of a field, where he was thought to seek a treasure buried by the Greeks.” Rafinesque now invented a new way of distilling brandy. He established a brandy-distillery, where, said he, “I made a very good brandy, equal to any made in Spain, without ever tasting a drop of it, since I hate all strong liquors. This prevented me from relishing this new employment, and so I gave it up after a time.”

Finally, disgust with the Sicilians and fear of the French wars caused Rafinesque, who was, as he says, “ a peaceful man,” to look again toward the United States. In 1815 he sailed again for America, with all his worldly goods, including his reams of unpublished manuscripts, his bushels of shells, and a multitude of drawings of objects in natural history. According to his own account, the extent of his collections at that time was enormous, and from the great number of scattered treatises on all manner of subjects which he published in later years, whenever he could get them printed, it is fair to suppose that his pile of manuscripts was equally great. A considerable number of his note-books, and of papers for which, fortunately for scientific nomenclature, he failed to find a publisher, are now preserved in the United States National Museum. These manuscripts are remarkable for two things,— the beauty of the quaint French penmanship, and the badness of the accompanying drawings. His numerous note-books, written in French, represent each the observations [p.158] of a busy summer; and these observations, for the most part unchecked by the comparison of specimens, he prepared for the press during the winter. To this manner of working, perhaps unavoidable in his case, many of Rafinesque’s errors and blunders are certainly due. In one of these note-books I find, among a series of notes in French, the following remarkable observation in English: “The girls at Fort Edward eat clay!” In another place I find a list of the new genera of fishes in Cuvier’s “ Règne Animal” (1817) which were known to him. Many of these are designated as synonymous with genera proposed by Rafinesque in his “Caratteri” in 1810. With this list is the remark that these genera of Cuvier are identical with such and such genera “proposed by me in 1810, but don’t you tell it!”

Rafinesque was six months on the ocean in this second voyage to America. Finally, just as the ship was entering Long Island Sound, the pilot let her drift against one of the rocks which lie outside of the harbor of New London. The vessel filled and sank, giving the passengers barely time to escape with their lives. “I reached New London at midnight,” says Rafinesque, “in a most deplorable situation. I had lost everything, — my fortune, my share in the cargo, my collections and labors of twenty years past, my books, my manuscripts, and even my clothes,— all I possessed, except some scattered funds and some little insurance money. Some hearts of stone have since dared to doubt of these facts, or rejoice at my losses. Yes, I have found men vile enough to laugh [p.159] without shame at my misfortunes, instead of condoling with me. But I have met also with friends who have deplored my loss and helped me in need.”

I shall pass rapidly over Rafinesque’s career until his settlement in Kentucky. He travelled widely in America, in the summer, always on foot. “Horses were offered to me,” he said, “but I never liked riding them, and dismounting for every flower. Horses do not suit botanists.” He now came westward, following the course of the Ohio, and exploring for the first time the botany of the country. He came to Indiana, and for a short time was associated with the community then lately established by Owen and Maclure at New Harmony on the Wabash. Though this New Harmony experiment was a failure, as all communities must be in which the drone and the worker alike have access to the honey-cells, yet the debt due it from American science is very great. Although far in the backwoods, and in the long notorious county of Posey, New Harmony was for a time fairly to be called the centre of American science; and even after half a century has gone by its rolls bear few names brighter than those of Thomas Say, David Dale Owen, and Charles Albert Le Sueur.

Rafinesque soon left New Harmony, and became Professor of Natural History and the Modern Languages in Transylvania University, at Lexington, Kentucky. He was, I believe, the very first teacher of natural history in the West, and his experiences were not more cheerful than those of most pioneers. They would not give him at [p.160] Lexington the degree of Master of Arts, he says, “because I had not studied Greek in a college, although I knew more languages than all the American colleges united. But it was granted at last; but that of Doctor of Medicine was not granted, because I would not superintend anatomical dissections.” He continues: —

“Mr. Holley, the president of the university, despised and hated the natural sciences, and he wished to drive me out altogether. To evince his hatred against science and its discoveries, he had broken open my rooms in my absence, given one to the students, and thrown all my effects, books, and collections into the other. He had deprived me of my situation as librarian, and tried to turn me out of the college. I took lodgings in town, and carried there all my effects, leaving the college with curses both on it and Holley, which reached them both soon after; for Holley died of the yellow fever in New Orleans and the college was burned with all its contents.”

In one of his summer trips Rafinesque became acquainted with Audubon, who was then painting birds and keeping a little “grocery-store” down the river, at Henderson, Kentucky. Rafinesque reached Henderson in a boat, carrying on his back a bundle of plants which resembled dried clover. He accidentally met Audubon, and asked him to tell him where the naturalist lived. The ornithologist introduced himself, and Rafinesque handed him a letter from a friend in the East, commending him to Audubon as an “odd fish, which might not be described in the published treatises.” The story of the interview is thus described by Audubon:

[p.161] “His attire struck me as exceedingly remarkable. A long, loose coat of yellow nankeen, much the worse for the many rubs it had got in its time, hung about him loosely, like a sack. A waistcoat of the same, with enormous pockets and buttoned up to the chin, reached below over a pair of tight pantaloons, the lower part of which was buttoned down over his ankles. His beard was long, and his lank black hair hung loosely over his shoulders. His forehead was broad and prominent, indicating a mind of strong power. His words impressed an assurance of rigid truth; and as he directed the conversation to the natural sciences, I listened to him with great delight.

“That night, after we were all abed, I heard of a sudden a great uproar in the naturalist’s room. I got up and opened the door, when to my astonishment I saw my guest running naked, holding the handle of my favorite Cremona, the body of which he had battered to pieces in attempting to kill the bats which had entered the open window! I stood amazed; but he continued jumping and running around and around till he was fairly exhausted, when he begged me to procure one of the animals for him, as he felt convinced that they belonged to a new species. Although I was convinced of the contrary, I took up the bow of my demolished violin, and giving a smart tip to each bat as it came up, we soon had specimens enough.”

A part of the story of this visit, which Audubon does not tell, may be briefly related here: Audubon was a great artist, and his paintings of birds and flowers excited the wonder and admiration of Rafinesque, as it has that of the generations since his time. But Audubon was something of a wag withal, and some spirit of mischief led him to revenge the loss of his violin on the too ready credulity of his guest. He showed him gravely [p.162] some ten grotesque drawings of impossible fishes which he had observed “down the river,” with notes on their habits, and a list of the names by which they were known by the French and English settlers. These Rafinesque duly copied into his note-books, and later he published descriptions of them as representatives of new genera, such as Pogostoma, Aplocentrus, Litholepis, Pilodictis, Pomacampsis, and the like.

These singular genera, so like and yet so unlike to anything yet known, have been a standing puzzle to students of fishes. Various attempts at identification of them have been made, but in no case have satisfactory results been reached. Many of the hard things which have been said of Rafinesque’s work rest on these unlucky genera,3 “communicated to me by Mr. Audubon.” The true story of this practical joke was told me by the venerable Dr. Kirtland, who in turn received it from Dr. Bachman, the brother-in-law and scientific associate of Audubon. In the private note-books of Rafinesque I have since found his copies of these drawings, and a glance at these is sufficient to show the extent to which science through him has been victimized.

About this time Rafinesque turned his mind again toward invention. He invented the present arrangement of coupon bonds, or, as he called it, “the divitial invention.” Savings-banks were [p.163] projected by him, as well as “steam ploughs,” “ aquatic railroads,” fire-proof houses, and other contrivances which he was unable to perfect. He took much delight in the study of the customs and languages of the Indians. In so doing, if the stories are true, he became, in a way, associated with the origin of Mormonism; for it is said that his theory that the Indians came from Asia by way of Siberia, and were perhaps the descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, gave the first suggestion to Solomon Spaulding for his book of the prophet Mormon. In any case, whether this be true or not, it is certain that Rafinesque is still cited as high authority by the Latter-Day Saints when the genuineness of the book of Mormon is questioned.

Rafinesque now returned to Philadelphia, and published “The Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge,” “ Annals of Nature,” and other serials, of which he was editor, publisher, and usually sole contributor. After a time he became sole subscriber, also,— a condition of affairs which greatly exasperated him against the Americans and their want of appreciation of science. He published several historical treatises, and contemplated a “Complete History of the Globe,” with all its contents. An elaborate poem of his, dreary enough, is entitled “The World; or, Instability.” He made many enemies among the American botanists of his time by his overbearing ways, his scorn of their customs and traditions, and especially by his advocacy of crude and undigested though necessary reforms, so that at last most of them decided to ignore his very existence. In those days, in [p.164] matters of classification, the rule of Linnæus was supreme, and any effort to recast his artificial groupings was looked at as heretical in the extreme. The attempt at a natural classification of plants, which has made the fame of Jussieu, had the full sympathy of Rafinesque; but to his American contemporaries such work could lead only to confusion. Then, again, in some few of its phases, Rafinesque anticipated the modern doctrine of the origin of species. That the related species of such genera as Rosa, Quercus, Trifolium, have had a common origin,— a view the correctness of which no well-informed botanist of our day can possibly doubt,— Rafinesque then maintained against the combined indignation and disgust of all his fellow-workers. His writings on these subjects read better to-day than when, forty-five years ago, they were sharply reviewed by one of our then young and promising botanists, Dr. Asa Gray.

But the botanists had good reason to complain of the application of Rafinesque’s theories of evolution. To him, the production of a new species was a rapid process, — a hundred years was time enough, — and when he saw the tendency in diverging varieties toward the formation of new species, he was eager to anticipate Nature (and his fellow-botanists as well), and give, it a new name. He became a monomaniac on the subject of new species. He was uncontrolled in this matter by the influence of other writers,— that incredulous conservatism as to another’s discoveries which furnishes a salutary balance to enthusiastic workers. Before his death [p.165] so much had he seen, and so little had he compared, that he had described certainly twice as many fishes, and probably nearly twice as many plants and shells, as really existed in the regions over which he travelled. He once sent for publication a paper seriously describing, in regular natural history style, twelve new species of thunder and lightning which he had observed near the Falls of the Ohio.

Then, too, Rafinesque studied in the field, collecting and observing in the summer, comparing and writing in the winter. When one is chasing a frog in a canebrake, or climbing a cliff in search of a rare flower, he cannot have a library and a museum at his back. The exact work of our modern museums and laboratories was almost unknown in his day. Then, again, he depended too much on his memory for facts and details; and, as Professor Agassiz used to say, “the memory must not be kept too full, or it will spill over.”

Thus it came about that the name and work of Rafinesque fell into utter neglect. His writings, scattered here and there in small pamphlets, cheap editions published at his own expense, had been sold as paper rags, or used to kindle fires by those to whom they were sent, and later authors could not find them. His “Ichthyologia Ohiensis,” once sold for a dollar, is now quoted at fifty dollars, and the present writer has seen but two copies of it. In the absence of means to form a just opinion of his work, it became the habit to pass him by with a sneer, as the “inspired idiot ... whose fertile imagination has peopled the waters of the Ohio.” Until lately, only Professor [p.167] Agassiz4 has said a word in mitigation of the harsh verdict passed on Rafinesque by his fellow-workers and their immediate successors. Agassiz says, very justly: —

“I am satisfied that Rafinesque was a better man than he appeared. His misfortune was his prurient desire for novelties, and his rashness in publishing them. . . . Tracing his course as a naturalist during his residence in this country, it is plain that he alarmed those with whom he had intercourse, by his innovations, and that they preferred to lean upon the authority of the great naturalist of the age [Cuvier], who, however, knew little of the special history of the country, rather than to trust a somewhat hasty man who was living among them, and who had collected a vast amount of information from all parts of the States upon a variety of subjects then entirely new to science.”5

In a sketch of “A Neglected Naturalist,” Professor Herbert E. Copeland has said: —

“To many of our untiring naturalists, who sixty years ago accepted the perils and privations of the far West, to collect and describe its animals and plants, we have given the only reward they sought, — a grateful remembrance of their work. Audubon died full of riches and honor, with the knowledge that his memory would be cherished as long as birds should sing. Wilson is the ‘father of American ornithology,’ and his mistakes and faults are forgotten [p.167] in our admiration of his great achievements. Le Sueur is remembered as the first to explore the ichthyology of the great American lakes. Laboring with these, and greatest of them all in respect to the extent and range of his accomplishments, is one whose name has been nearly forgotten, and who is oftenest mentioned in the field of his best labors with pity or contempt.”6

It is doubtless true that while, as Professor Agassiz has said, Rafinesque “was a better man than he appeared,” and while he was undoubtedly a man of great learning and of greater energy, his work does not deserve a high place in the records of science. And his failure seems due to two things: first, his lack of attention to details, a defect which has vitiated all of his work; and, second, his versatility, which led him to attempt work in every field of learning. As to this, he says himself: —

“It is a positive fact that in knowledge I have been a botanist, naturalist, geologist, geographer, historian, poet, philosopher, philologist, economist, philanthropist. By profession a traveller, merchant, manufacturer, brewer, collector, improver, teacher, surveyor, draughtsman, architect, engineer, pulmista, author, editor, bookseller, librarian, secretary, and I hardly know what I may not become as yet, since, whenever I apply myself to anything which I like, I never fail to succeed, if depending on myself alone, unless impeded or prevented by the lack of means, or the hostility of the foes of mankind.”

But a traveller Rafinesque chiefly considered himself; and to him all his pursuits, scientific, linguistic, historical, were but episodes in a life of [p.168] travel. Two lines of doggerel French were his motto: —

“Un voyageur des le berceau,
Je le serai jusqu’au tombeau”

“A traveller from the cradle,
I’m a traveller to the tomb.”

Long before the invention of railroads and steamboats he had travelled over most of southern Europe and eastern North America. Without money except as he earned it, he had gathered shells and plants and fishes on every shore from the Hellespont to the Wabash.

Concerning one element of Rafinesque’s character I am able to find no record. If he ever loved any man or woman, except as a possible patron and therefore aid to his schemes of travel, he himself gives no record of it. He speaks kindly of Audubon; but Audubon had furnished him with specimens and paintings of flowers and fishes. He speaks generously of Clifford, at Lexington; but Clifford had given him an asylum when he was turned out of Transylvania University. No woman is mentioned in his Autobiography except his mother and sister, and these but briefly. His own travels, discoveries, and publications filled his whole mind and soul.

Rafinesque died in Philadelphia, in 1840, at the age of fifty-six. He had been living obscurely in miserable lodgings; for his dried plants, and his books published at his own expense, brought him but a scanty income. His scientific reputation had not reached his fellow-lodgers, and his landlord thought him “ a crazy herb-doctor.” He died [p.169] alone, and left no salable assets; and his landlord refused to allow his friends— such friends as he had— to enter the house to give him a decent burial. He wished to make good the unpaid rent by selling the body to a medical college; but at night, so the story goes, a physician who had studied botany with Rafinesque got a few friends together, and broke into the garret and carried away the body, which they buried in a little churchyard outside the city limits, now obliterated by the growth of Philadelphia.

American naturalists have greater honor now than forty years ago. Rafinesque died unnoticed, and was buried only by stealth. A whole nation wept for Agassiz. But a difference was in the men as well as in the times. Both were great naturalists and learned men. Both had left high reputations in Europe to cast their lot with America. Agassiz’s great heart went out toward every one with whom he came in contact; but Rafinesque loved no man or woman, and died, as he had lived, alone. If some one who loved him had followed him to the last, it might have been with Rafinesque as with Albrecht Dürer: “‘Emigravit’ is the inscription on the headstone where he lies.” But there was no one; and there is neither headstone nor inscription, and we know not even the place where he rests after his long journey.

Rafinesque’s last recorded words were these: “Time renders justice to all alike.” And to the justice of Time we may leave him.

1 This and most of the other verbal quotations in this paper are taken from an “Autobiography of Rafinesque,” of which a copy exists in the Library of Congress. A few quotations have been somewhat abridged.

2 Dr. Elliott Coues has wittily suggested that as the words “grotesque,” “picturesque,” and the like, are used to designate certain literary styles, the adjective “rafinesque” may be similarly employed for work like that of the author now under consideration.

3 I am informed by Dr. J. A. Allen that there are also some unidentified genera of herons, similarly described by Rafinesque from drawings kindly shown him by Mr. Audubon. Apparently these also date from the same unlucky practical joke.

4 So early as 1844, Professor Agassiz wrote to Charles Lucien Bonaparte: “I think that there is a justice due to Rafinesque. However poor his descriptions, he first recognized the necessity of multiplying genera in ichthyology, and this at a time when the thing was far more difficult than now.”

5 Agassiz, American Journal of Science and Arts, 1854, p. 354.

6 American Naturalist, 1876.
[a “Pulmist” is a very obscure word, but its meaning may be inferred to be a person applying medical botany to cure diseases of the lung. Rafinesque wrote a 72-page, small book, titled The Pulmist: or, Introduction to the Art of Curing and Preventing the Consumption or Chronic Phthisis (1829). In it, he states that either word, Consumption or Phthisis, means a wasting of the body or some particular organ, such as the liver, or lung. He wrote that he had “become a Pulmist, by applying myself exclusively and assiduously to ascertain and cure the diseases of the lungs.” He described the use of his formulation, which he called the Pulmel, in various forms, including a syrup for internal use, or a balsam for inhalation. —Webmaster]

Footnotes have been moved from their pages in the original text, renumbered, and gathered at the end of the web page. Text is based on a paper first read at the Indiana Academy of Sciences (30 Dec 1885), and published Popular Science Monthly (Jun 1886), 29, 212-221. Source text for this webpage is the 4th edition of a collection of articles by in David Starr Jordan (some editted, some rewritten), reprinted in Science Sketches (1911), 153-169. (source)

See also:
  • 22 Oct - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Rafinesque's birth.
  • Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness, by Leonard Warren. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Constantine Samuel Rafinesque.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
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