- Historic Sites
The Oddest Of Characters
Slovenly, impulsive, impoverished, and grotesque, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was the greatest naturalist of his age. But nobody knew it.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
Once in Europe, Rafinesque sold his stock of American plants, seeds, rocks, and shells to colleges, gardens, and museums and set about acquiring new collections. He wrote scientific papers and worked with a few scientific groups, but his only real financial success came from his exportation from Sicily of the squill, a medicinal herb. He bought squill plants for a dollar per hundred pounds and sold them for from twenty to thirty dollars per hundred. His income from this venture dropped sharply after the Sicilians discovered what he was doing and took over his market, and for a time the manufacture of whiskey replaced the exportation of squills.
In 1809 he married a Sicilian; it was an unhappy match, never recognized by his wife’s church because he was not a Catholic. In 1813 his request for a position as a professor of botany at the University of Sicily was turned down; the next year the natural history journal he had started failed; and then his wife, taking their four-year-old daughter with her, ran off with an Italian comedian. The scientist packed up his many books and manuscripts, his herbal and mineral collections, six hundred thousand shell specimens, two thousand maps and drawings—in all, fifty big boxes full—and in 1815 set sail for America on the ship Union .
When Rafinesque wrote that lower forms of life gradually developed into higher, more complex forms, he anticipated the theory of evolution.
The Union was caught in heavy fog close to her destination and ran aground on the rocks between Fishers Island and Long Island. Passengers and crew got safely to shore, but the vessel sank. “We had merely time to escape in our boats. … Having left the wreck we rowed towards the lighthouse of New London, then in sight, and reached it at midnight: thus landing in America for a second time, but in a deplorable situation. I had lost everything, my fortune, my share of the cargo, my collection, and labour for 20 years past, my books, my manuscripts, my drawings, even my clothes … all that I possessed, except some scattered funds, and the Insurance ordered in England for one-third of the value of my goods.”
After reaching New London, Connecticut, in a “state of darkest despair,” Rafinesque walked to New York City to see Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill, a prominent physician and naturalist whom he knew. Dr. Mitchill got him a job as tutor, but Rafinesque soon gave it up in order to go on one scientific excursion after another, sometimes in the company of other scientists, more often alone and on foot. “I never liked riding horses and dismounting for every flower; horses do not suit botanists,” he wrote. He returned from each field trip loaded down with backpacks filled with plants, minerals, fossils, shells, and drawings. Rafinesque’s sketches were appreciated, and used, by other naturalists; Dr. Mitchill illustrated one of his papers with some of them.
Rafinesque helped Mitchill and two other scientists establish the Lyceum of Natural History in New York. He was allowed to present the first scientific paper, and as a member of the Committee on Lectures he participated in assigning lecture subjects; he assigned himself presentations on helminthology, polyology, plyspes, hydrogeology, atmology, and taxonomy. He became a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, contributed articles to several publications, and was much talked about—although never completely accepted—by the scientific community. Too many people thought him “quite peculiar, a really strange fellow … self-centered, stubborn, quarrelsome,” with a “perfectly fierce obsession, a real mad craze, for discovering new genera and species.”
In May 1818 Rafinesque began a two-thousand-mile over-theAlleghenies botanizing tour. He was bound for Kentucky, on the advice of John D. Clifford, whom he had known in Philadelphia and who had moved to Lexington, where he maintained a private museum of antiquities and fossils.
In Pittsburgh a company of booksellers told Rafinesque that there was a great need for a true chart of the Ohio from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois. If he would prepare one, the booksellers would in turn publish for him the story of his travels and give him five hundred copies for the copyright. In time Rafinesque delivered the chart and was delighted with the “magnificent payment of one hundred dollars for it.” Emigrants headed down the dangerous stream were grateful. But the booksellers never published Rafinesque’s story.
The traveler apparently enjoyed every minute of his trip on the Ohio “in company with some French gentlemen … on an ark of flat-covered boat. … [We] floated slowly down the river, stopping every night. I was thus at leisure to survey and explore; we had a smaller boat to land where we pleased, botanize and buy provisions. We had [a guide] as far as Gallipolis [Ohio]. … Thus we averted many accidents and I began to study the fishes which we caught or bought, making drawings, &c.”