The Oddest Of Characters

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It is quite fitting,” wrote a Philadelphia journalist in 1804, “that the name ‘Rafinesque’ rhymes with ‘picturesque’ and ‘grotesque,’ because so the little man is.” The subject was a struggling twenty-one-year-old scientist named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who actually was a rather attractive fellow when he was neatly groomed and at ease and in a good humor, but that was not often.

 

It is quite fitting,” wrote a Philadelphia journalist in 1804, “that the name ‘Rafinesque’ rhymes with ‘picturesque’ and ‘grotesque,’ because so the little man is.” The subject was a struggling twenty-one-year-old scientist named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who actually was a rather attractive fellow when he was neatly groomed and at ease and in a good humor, but that was not often.

Most scientists today agree that Rafinesque’s genius was not fully recognized during his lifetime. He claimed that “unjust treatment,” “persecution by enemies,” and “endless discrimination” kept him from attaining the prominent position in science he deserved. Not long before he died—in 1840, bitter and a pauper—he cried, “Time renders justice to all!” It took a long time in his case. More than four decades after his death, G. B. Goode, a late-nineteenth-century historian of American science, decried old references to Rafinesque as the “oddest of characters” and said the man’s eccentricities were only the “outcome of a boundless enthusiasm for the study of nature.” At the turn of the twentieth century the noted American zoologist David Starr Jordan praised him as the “most remarkable man to appear in the annals of American science,” and a generation later the eminent science writer Donald Culross Peattie stated, “Among all the naturalists who have worked on the American continent, Rafinesque is the only one who might clearly be called a titan.”

The man, in reviewing his own “talents and professions … which may appear to exceed belief,” certainly told his contemporaries that he was a genius:”… it is a positive fact that in knowledge I have been a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist … Traveller, Merchant, Manufacturer, Collector, Improver, Professor, Teacher, Surveyor, Draftsman, Architect, Engineer, Pulmist, Author, Editor, Bookseller, Librarian, Secretary. … I never fail to succeed if depending on me alone, unless impeded and prevented by lack of means, or the hostility of the foes of mankind.”

Rafinesque was born in Constantinople, Turkey, in October 1783 of a French father and a German mother. When he was very young, the family moved to France and then, before he was nine, to Leghorn, Italy. After that Rafinesque seldom saw his trader father, who stayed away on extended voyages. The boy decided he, too, would be a traveler; nature and exploration were the two driving passions of his life.

Rafinesque hiked through the woods of France and Italy, studying flowers, trees, birds, and animals. “It was there among the flowers and fruits that I began to enjoy life,” he wrote, “and I became a Botanist.”

He did not stay in a schoolroom much, and taught himself the subjects he wished to learn. He learned Latin because that was the language of botanical knowledge. At fifty-three he boasted: “I never was in a regular College … but spent [my time] in learning alone and by mere reading ten times more than is taught in Schools. I have undertaken to learn the Latin and Greek, as well as Hebrew, Sanscrit, Chinese and fifty other languages, as I felt the need or inclination to study them.”

When he was still a boy in Italy, he heard that his father, while on a trading voyage, had died of yellow fever in Philadelphia. He had heard intriguing stories about the fabulous “untouched riches of natural history” in America, so when he was eighteen, he set out, accompanied by his younger brother, Anthony, for Philadelphia. The brothers arrived in mid-April 1802, and Constantine for a short time endured employment at a “counting-house desk.” It was very necessary employment inasmuch as his father’s partners had robbed the two boys of the inheritance due them, but Constantine soon left it for work with a horticulturist in Germantown and for “excursions into the virgin botanical world of Pennsylvania and surrounding states.” Anthony took over the clerkship.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were preparing for their expedition across the continent, Rafinesque had received notice in botanical circles for his extensive collections and several of his discoveries, including “new plants in the mountains and new fish in the bays.” During a visit with Thomas Jefferson—the President had invited him to Monticello—he learned of the proposed Lewis and Clark venture. Rafinesque claimed that he was told “by those in charge of the expedition” that he probably would be admitted to it as a botanist. But “those in charge” did not further approach him, and he, instead of actively seeking such a position, just waited—expectantly—until it was too late. Bitterly disappointed, he sailed with Anthony for Italy on New Year’s Day, 1805, vowing never to return to America.