Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840)

During the past few years, the scientific work of C. S. Rafinesque has been gaining recognition and respectability. Appearing in January 1999 is an article on Rafinesque in Smithsonian Magazine Online (link below), as well as an account by Charles Boewe in the new 24-volume, American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999). Dr. Boewe has also written a sketch of Rafinesque's life in

The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber, Editor in Chief, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1992.

That sketch is partially reproduced here by kind permission of the editor:

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, naturalist and philologist, was born on October 22, 1783, in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople, to Francois G. A. and Madeleine (Schmaltz) Rafinesque. His father was a French merchant and his mother the daughter of a German merchant family long resident in the Levant. Rafinesque's family moved to France the year following his birth; during the turmoil of the French Revolution, the boy was sent to live with relatives in Tuscany. He was taught by tutors; his hopes of a university education in Switzerland were thwarted by the family's reduced income after his father died in Philadelphia in 1793, of yellow fever contracted during a commercial voyage to China.

At age nineteen Rafinesque became an apprentice in the mercantile house of the Clifford Brothers in Philadelphia. During the next two years, he roamed the woods and fields from Pennsylvania to Virginia, making plant and animal collections and developing a wide correspondence with fellow naturalists. He returned to Europe in 1805 and spent the next decade in Sicily, where he was secretary to the U. S. consul. He carried on a lucrative international trade in commodities while exploring the island for plants and identifying fishes in the Palermo market that were scientifically unrecorded. During this time his first scientific books were published.

Rafinesque fathered two children in Sicily but could not legally marry their mother, Josephine Vacarro, because he was a Protestant and she a Roman Catholic. On his return to the United States in 1815, he was shipwrecked on Long Island Sound, losing all his collections and unpublished manuscripts. He remained in America the rest of his life, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1832, and did not see his family again.

Assisted by friends, he lived in New York until 1818, when he set off on a collecting trip down the Ohio River as far as Shawneetown, Illinois. During the trip he began the first comprehensive survey of the river's fish population (Ichthyologia Ohiensis, 1820). He stayed eight days with John James Audubon in Henderson, Kentucky, and on his return to Philadelphia passed through Lexington, where his former employer, the merchant John D. Clifford, had settled. Clifford, a trustee of Transylvania University, arranged for Rafinesque to become professor of botany and natural science there.

Rafinesque's years at Transylvania, 1819-26, though often troubled by quarrels with colleagues, were among his most productive. He published scientific names, both locally and in Europe, for thousands of plants and hundreds of animals. He became interested also in prehistoric Indian sites—identifying 148 of them in Kentucky alone... At Transylvania he taught botany through the innovation of examining physical specimens and he tried, unsuccessfully, to found a botanical garden in conjunction with the university. When he returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1826, he shipped ahead forty crates of specimens, which were the basis of his studies for the rest of his life.

Rafinesque's remaining years in Philadelphia were sustained by a variety of means. He traded in specimens and books; he gave public lectures; he organized a workingmen's bank; he invented and marketed a nostrum for tuberculosis. With the patronage of the wealthy Charles Wetherill, he issued an astonishing array of books—not only natural history works but also philosophical poetry and a linguistic study of Hebrew—although they found few buyers. By Rafinesque's own count, he published 220 "works, pamphets, essays, and tracts," yet he left as great a bulk in manuscript, most of which was sold as junk after his death. Best known for remarkable fecundity in divising scientific names—6,700 in botany alone—Rafinesque also had some insight into a number of theoretical issues in biology that became important later: the impermanence of species, the significance of fossils in dating sedimentary geological strata, and such ecological considerations as plant geography and plant succession.

Rafinesque and New Harmony

In order to gain a better understanding of Rafinesque's interest in New Harmony, I wrote to the author of the foregoing account, Charles Boewe, who kindly responded:

He thought seriously about settling in New Harmony when he left Lexington in 1826, but chose not to—most probably because of the enmity generated by that time against him by Thomas Say. Had he gone there he surely would have had an ally in Lesueur, with whom he was on friendly terms throughout life, though in some ways they were rivals in ichthyology. Incidentally, there are no Rafinesque letters to or from either Say or Lesueur, but there are two which Rafinesque wrote to Maclure (10 May 1832 and 15 April 1833). CSR also published two short articles in the New Harmony Gazette. These are not on science but relate to communal affairs, a subject of great interest to Rafinesque. On his way back to Philadelphia in 1826 he visited the Owenite community at Yellow Springs, Ohio, and he was relying on the promise of the projected Owenite community at Valley Forge to pay the cost of shipping his 40 crates of specimens and personal effects from Lexington to Philadelphia. (This community failed before he reached there, with the result that his shipment remained in storage for years, much to the detriment of his herbarium specimens.) And, late in life, he planned with a wealthy friend to found a utopian community in Illinois, the centerpiece of which would be a university specializing in the agricultural and mechanic arts. This theoretical "Central University of Illinois" even published a few books and pamphlets before the death of its patron ended it. These have been something of an enigma for historians of the present-day University of Illinois. Rafinesque's institution curiously anticipated by more than two decades the land-grant university that actually came into being—even down to the name of the town for its seat. Rafinesque thought "Agathopolis" appropriate, which is phony Greek but perhaps no less euphonious than "Urbana," which is phony Latin.

Rafinesque's generic and specific names

"Whatever else one may say regarding Rafinesque, one must admit that he was very adept in selecting short euphonious generic names for the new entities that he proposed..." So writes Elmer D. Merrill in a book whose uniqueness matches that of its subject:

Elmer D. Merrill, Index Rafinesquianus, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, 1949.

Merrill tells that Rafinesque gave about 2,700 new generic names, of which only about 30 are generally accepted, and about 6,700 new binomials (Genus + species, or more technically correct, Genus + specific epithet), of which relatively few are still in use. These numbers far exceed those for any other biologist. In Merrill's book, fully 178 pages are required to list Rafinesque binomials with citations to articles in which they were described by Rafinesque.

Literature on Rafinesque and his work

In 1978, three books about Rafinesque and his work were republished under one cover:

Rafinesque: Autobiography and Lives, with an Introduction by Keir B. Sterling, Arno Press, New York, 1978. The three books and their earlier dates of publication are

C. S. Rafinesque, A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and the South of Europe, From 1802 till 1835, Philadelphia, 1836.

Richard Ellsworth Call, The Life and Writings of Rafinesque, Filson Club Publications No. 10, Louisville, 1895.

T. J. Fitzpatrick, Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography, Des Moines, 1911.

Rafinesque wrote many short philological articles in the short-lived journals he edited. For a discussion of these, see

Vilen V. Belyi, "Rafinesque's Linguistic Activity," Anthropological Linguistics 39 (1997) 60-73.

I thank Charles Boewe for help in locating a copy of the only image of Rafinesque, shown on this page, that can be comfortably regarded as authentic. It first appeared in the frontispiece of Rafinesque's Analyse de la Nature, Palermo, 1815.

A major addition to the existing literature on Rafinesque will be

Charles Boewe, Correspondence of C. S. Rafinesque, forthcoming.

Cynomys ludovicianus (Rafineque) [common name: prairie dog]
Rafinesquia, plant genus named in honor of Rafinesque
Peromyscus leucopus (Rafinesque), [white-footed mouse]
Odocoileus hemionus Rafinesque, [mule deer]
Atractosteus, a genus name authored by Rafinesque
Cladrastis kentukea, genus named by Rafinesque [yellowwood]
Gopherus, genus named by Rafinesque [tortoises]
Fishes Sketched by Rafinesque
Fishes First Described by Rafinesque
Article in Smithsonian Magazine Online, January 1999
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