Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

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Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

During his lifetime, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) was not appreciated for his abilities as agifted naturalist. He produced over 900 works on awide variety of subjects, describing many new species of plants and fishes. Charles Darwin ultimately recognized him as one of the first naturalists to champion the idea of natural plant classification. Rafinesque believed that each species that deviated from the norm was capable of becoming a new species.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople, Turkey, on August 22, 1783. His father was a prosperous French merchant from Marseilles. His mother, Madeleine Schmaltz, was born in Greece of German parents. Rafinesque went by the name Rafinesque-Schmaltz until 1814 when he dropped his mother's maiden name. During the Napoleonic Wars the Rafinesque family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to escape the violence. Rafinesque's father died there of yellow fever. His mother took Rafinesque, along with his brother and sister, back to France. From there the family fled to Leghorn, Italy, to escape political upheaval in France. The family lived there from 1792 to 1796. His mother, a cultured and independent woman, had her children educated by private tutors.

Precocious Child

Rafinesque was only eleven when he began the systematic collection of herbs. He also intended to collect birds. After shooting a Titmouse, he became so upset that he only killed for food for the rest of his life. By the age of twelve Rafinesque believed that he had read at least a thousand books on a wide range of subjects. He also claimed to have studied 50 languages by the age of 16 including Chinese, Hebrew, and Sanskrit. Rafinesque's education by tutors and his separation from young men his own age caused him difficulties throughout the rest of his life. He never acquired the discipline of the trained scientist and was ignored by many of his contemporaries.

During his youth, Rafinesque also lived in Piza, Genoa, and Marseilles. In 1800, he was apprenticed to a merchant who had been a friend of his father and worked in Leghorn, Italy. Rafinesque and his brother decided to travel to Philadelphia, Pennyslvania where he lived for three years. During part of that time he worked in the counting house of the Clifford brothers. He also found much time to travel and continue his study of plants and animals. In Philadelphia he met many scientists such as Benjamin Rush, Thomas Forrest, Mosses Marshall, and William Bartram. He also traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with President Thomas Jefferson. There he talked to a group of Osage Indians and acquired knowledge of their language. He studied the botany of southern New Jersey and the dismal swamp of Virginia. By the time Rafinesque and his brother returned to Leghorn in 1804, he had a large collection of botanical specimens.

The Sicilian Years

For the next ten years, from 1805 to 1815, Rafinesque lived in Palermo, Sicily. He considered these years to be the high point of his life. He explored Mount Etna, made hundreds of sketches of the flora of the area, collected specimens, and studied the ichthyology of the waters around Sicily. During this time he published many pamphlets and wrote for a number of periodicals. To support himself, he worked as the secretary and chancellor to the American council. By 1808, he opened his own business exporting squills and medicinal plants. He was a good businessman and, when he put his mind to it, did quite well.

Rafinesque married Josephine Vaccaro in 1909 and produced two children; a daughter, Emily, who became an actress, and a son who died in infancy. His wife showed no interest in his work and may have had affairs with other men. Rafinesque was unable to get his Sicilian portfolios published and was refused the chair of botany at the University of Palermo. He later claimed that he loved the climate and the soil of Sicily, but hated the deceit of women. In 1815, he packed up his personal belongings, as well as his medicinal plants and merchandise, and sailed for the United States, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Returned to America

His third voyage to America of over 100 days ended in disaster. He was shipwrecked off Fisher's Island, at the entrance to Long Island Sound. He lost everything, including all of the work he had produced over the last 20 years. He was naked and destitute, after almost drowning. His wife, upon hearing of his plight, soon married a comic actor. Rafinesque was humiliated and kept the story of his marriage a secret until his death.

Samuel Latham Mitchell became his friend and introduced him to the naturalists in New York. Zaccheus Collins, the Quaker naturalist, did the same in Philidelphia. During part of this time he supported himself as a tutor in the Livingston household at Clermont. In his spare time, he explored the Hudson Valley, Lake George, Long Island, and surrounding regions. In 1818, Rafinesque embarked on a 2,000 mile tour to the west of the Alleghenies. As he proceeded mostly on foot, he made many important botanical discoveries.

Rafinesque traveled to Lexington, Kentucky, in the spring of 1818 to visit his friend John D. Clifford. Clifford was instrumental in getting Rafinesque appointed to a post as professor of botany, natural history, and modern languages at Transylvania University. Though his friend died two years later, Rafinesque managed to hold on to his post until 1826. He was considered a brilliant teacher. During this period he traveled through Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Finally in 1825, he journeyed through Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Rafinesque did not keep organized records of the flora and fauna he observed during these travels. He left mostly fragments of writing and sketchy descriptions. His collection of possibly 50,000 specimens was damaged by vermin and discarded by curators who dismissed Rafinesque's work as hopelessly unrewarding. His work was never taken seriously during his lifetime.

Championed Natural Plant Classification

Because the earliest validly published description had to be accepted according to the rule of priority in systemic biology, later naturalists had to recognize Rafinesque. He was ahead of his time in the introduction of natural plant classification in the United States. Rafinesque believed that Jussieu's natural plant selection should replace Linnaeus' artificial sexual system of classification. According to Rafinesque in his work Flora telluriana 1, life is ruled by great laws including symmetry, perpetuity, diversity, and instability. Symmetry gives the bodily forms to genera, molding typical frames. The original primitive forms are perpetuated by reproduction. All living bodies are compelled to diversify and no two individuals are exactly alike. The last great law is instability. No form is perpetual. All living forms are born, grow, decay, and die; some quickly, while others take years. Writing in the Atlantic Journal in the spring of 1833, Rafinesque stated that "every variety is a deviation which becomes a species as soon as it is permanent by reproduction. Deviations in essential organs may then gradually become new genera." With this statement he anticipated the future of biological thought.

Rafinesque had many interests in addition to botany and ichthyology. He wrote about banking, the Bible, and poetry. Rafinesque endorsed the construction of the Panama Canal, believed that culturing pearls in mussels was a viable industry, and that houses and ships could be built of fireproof materials. He developed and marketed a vegetable remedy for tuberculosis that was never patented. Rafinesque began a savings bank primarily to finance his own publications. He was also the first to suggest that the Mayan system of ideographs was partly syllabic.

As one of the most widely traveled naturalists in America, Rafinesque had the opportunity to meet the noted scientists of his day and was on friendly terms with most of them. After leaving Transylvania University, he lived in Philadelphia until his death from stomach cancer on July 18, 1840. His friends described him as a little dried up old Frenchman. Only two pictures of him have been verified. He continued to travel and publish until his death, ultimately bankrupting himself. His best known works are Ichthyologia Ohioensis, (1820), Medical Flora of the United States, (1828), and A Life of Travels, (1836). In all, he published at least 900 other works. Most of his drawings and writings are out of print. Rare copies can still be found. He died in poverty in Philadelphia and his friends stole his body for burial before his landlord could sell it to a medical school. In 1924 his remains were moved to the campus of Transylvania University at Lexington, where he was reinterred with honor.


Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Elliot, Clark A. Biographical Dictionary of American Science: The Seventeenth Through the Nineteenth Centuries, Greenwood Press, 1979.

Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 1995.


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Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Galata, near Constantinople, 22 October 1783; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 18 September 1840)

natural history, archaeology.

Rafinesque missed greatness by embracing too many fields of knowledge, yet the rule of priority in systematic biology, which requires the earliest validly published description to be honored, has forced the recognition of this rejected naturalist. His contemporaries gave scant heed to his voluminous, erratic writings. John Bohn’s London sales catalog of natural history books, issued in 1835, listed 2, 178 titles—but not one of Rafinesque’s. Yet in Rafinesque’s espousal of the emerging schemes of natural plant classification over the artifical “sexual system” of Linnaeus, he was ahead of his time. Rafinesque proposed a multiplicity of forms—over 6,700 binomials—consistent with the theory of organic evolution; his germinal idea was acknowledged by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species. Rafinesque saw life ruled by great laws:

Symmetry, that gives the bodily forms to Genera, casting the mould of typical frames—Perpetuity, that by reproduction perpetuates these original primitive forms—Diversity, that bids and compels all living bodies to assume gradually a variety of slight changes when reproduced, and never evolves two individuals perfectly alike, nor two leaves quite similar in all points on the very same tree. Lastly Instability, that does not allow any forms nor frames to be perpetual nor ever the same, giving to plants and animals birth, growth, decay and death! in succession, within a term of a few hours, a day, a month, a year, or 1000 years [Flora telluriana, I (Philadelphia, 1837), 99–100].

Rafinesque’s father was Georges F. Rafinesque, a French merchant who had settled in the Levant but during the Napoleonic Wars took refuge in Philadelphia and died there of yellow fever. His mother, Madeleine Schmaltz, was a native Greek of German extraction who fled France during the Reign of Terror, taking Constantine, his brother, and his sister, to Leghorn, Italy, where he lived from 1792 to 1796 and was taught by private tutors. Rafinesque declared that he had read a thousand volumes on almost every subject by the age of twelve and had studied fifty languages, including Chinese, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, by the age of sixteen.

Rafinesque lived successively in Pisa, Genoa, and Marseilles until 1800, when he was apprenticed to a merchant friend of his father. After two years in Leghorn he sailed for Philadelphia, where he met Benjamin Rush (whose pupil he declined to become), the horticulturist Thomas Forrest, Moses Marshall, and William Bartram. He collected reptiles for François Daudin; and when Michaux’s Flora appeared in 1803, he determined to prepare a supplement to it. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in November 1804, Rafinesque inquired why the American government had not sent a botanist with Dunbar’s Red River party. Jefferson’s offer of that post reached Rafinesque after he had sailed for Italy.

Rafinesque considered his ten years in Sicily “the best epoch of [his] life.” His exploration of Etna, during which he made hundreds of sketches and collected naturalia, was supported first by his serving as secretary to the United States consul and later, profitably, as manufacturer of squill for export. Various discouragements—his unhappy marriage in 1809 to Josephine Vaccaro, his failure to publish his Sicilian portfolios, and his being refused the chair of botany at the University of Palermo—caused Rafinesque to return to America in 1815. After a voyage of over a hundred days he was shipwrecked off Long Island. He lost his books, manuscripts, drawings —“everything”—the labors of twenty years. He was subsequently befriended in New York by Samuel Latham Mitchill, who introduced him to naturalists, as did Zaccheus Collins in Philadelphia.

Although Rafinesque’s historical writings may be set aside as superficial, his contacts with so many important contemporaries are significant. He advocated the construction of a Panama canal, the culture of pearls in mussels, houses and ships of fireproof construction, and steam plowing; and he developed and marketed a vegetable remedy for tuberculosis, although he did not patent it. Rafinesque organized and managed a savings bank in order to provide funds for his later publications, but he was eventually impoverished by his frenzy to print more and more. He was first to suggest from a meager published account of 1822 that the Mayan system of ideographs was partly syllabic. An advocate of “rigid sobriety” and walking, he was frugal and overly sensitive but severely critical of others, and was described in 1837 as “a little dried up, muffy-looking old man, resembling an antiquated Frenchman” (Pennell, p. 61). Two verified portraits exist, and Rafinesque drew several of his Kentucky friends.

Beginning in 1818, with his 2,000-mile tour to the west of the Alleghenies, Rafinesque made important botanical explorations, mostly on foot, as far as Kentucky and Illinois. From 1819 to 1826 he was professor at Transylvania College; but instead of a summation of his firsthand acquaintance with Kentucky’s flora and fauna, he left merely miscellaneous fragments. The misfortune of his sketchy descriptions was aggravated by damage to his collections by vermin and contemptuous curators, such as Èlie Durand, who discarded most of Rafinesque’s herbarium, once reputed to contain 50,000 specimens. Consequently modern interpretation of many of Rafinesque’s organisms, notable and often overlooked, has been hopelessly unrewarding. “In spite of Rafinesque’s idiosyncrasies,” wrote Merrill (p. 296), “in spite of his careless work, in spite of his constant and often caustic criticism of his associates, much that he accomplished was distinctly worth while.”


I. Original Works. A Life of Travels (Philadelphia, 1836), a resumé of Rafinesque’s writings, was repr. in Chronica botanica, 8 (1944), 291–360, with an intro. by E. D. Merrill, portraits, and an annotated index by F. W. Pennell. T. J. Fitzpatrick, Rafinesque, a Sketch of His Life With Bibliography (Des Moines, Iowa, 1911), lists 938 titles of Rafinesque’s writings. Rafinesque’s Medical Flora, or Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1828–1830), contains 100 woodcut plates by Rafinesque printed in green—an early example of this process. Rafinesque’s translation of C. C. Robin’s Florida ludoviciana (New York, 1817) includes notes culled from William Bartram’s Travels (1791). This and many other works by Rafinesque have been reprinted.

II. Secondary Literature. The most important guide to Rafinesque’s life and work is E. D. Merrill, Index Rafinesquianus, the Plant Names Published by RafinesqueWith Reductions, and a Consideration of His Methods, Objectives and Attainments (Jamaica Plain, Mass., 1949). An overview of the man and his position in science by Raymond L. Taylor, in William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 2 (1945), 213–221, has useful references. F.W. Pennell, “Life and Work of Rafinesque,” in Transylvania College Bulletin, 15 , no. 7 (1942), 10–70, contains previously unpublished material; summaries of Rafinesque’s contributions to archaeology by W.D. Funkhouser (ibid., 78–80), to inchthyology by William E. Ricker (81–83), to herpetology by William M. Clay (84–90), and to materia medica by H.B. Haag (91–96) are included in this symposium sponsored by Transylvania College.

See also H. A. Pilsbry, “Rafinesque’ Genera of Fresh water Snails,” in Nautilus, 30 (1917), 109–114; and S.N. Rhoads, “Rafinesque as an Ornithologist,” in Cassinia, 15 (1912), 1–12. A notice of the “enthsiastic and persevering Rafinesque” by William Swainson, who knew him in Sicily, appeared in Swainson’s Taxidermy With the Biography of Zoologists (London, 1840), 300–301. The often quoted classification of twelve species of thunder and lightning, mentioned by Frederick Brendel in his “Historical Sketch of the Science of Botany in North America From 1635 to 1840,” in American Naturalist, 13 (1879), 754–771, is an erroneous misinterpretation of Rafinesque. Recent commentaries include F.A. Stafleu, “Rafinesque’s Caratteri and Florula ludoviciana,” in Taxon, 17 (1968), 296–299; and Ronald L. Stuckey, “C. S. Rafinesque’s North American Vascular Plants at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” in Brittonia, 23 (1971), 191–208.

Joseph Ewan

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