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
During the three weeks Rafinesque stayed, Audubon helped him search for specimens. But Audubon also slipped in among his other drawings pictures of imaginary fish. When Rafinesque came across the first of these—a sturgeonlike creature with no ventral fins—he delightedly exclaimed that it was “new.” Audubon calmly remarked that it was quite common in the Ohio River, and Rafinesque, with no thought of investigating the find, yanked out his journal, made notes, and copied the drawing. The same thing happened when Audubon slipped in a drawing of a fish with a square nose and a head equal to one-fourth of its length—and on and on. When Rafinesque departed, he proudly carried with him, in addition to many real specimens, the detailed descriptions, exact measurements, specific names, and drawings of ten nonexistent fish. As pleased as he was, he did not bother to thank the Audubons for their hospitality before leaving. According to Audubon, “One evening when tea was prepared, and we expected him to join the family, he was nowhere to be found. The night was spent in searching for him in the neighborhood. No eccentric naturalist could be discovered. Whether he had perished in a swamp, or had been devoured by a bear or a gar-fish, or had taken to his heels, were matters of conjecture; nor was it until some weeks after that a letter from him, thanking us for our attention, assured me of his safety.”
Rafinesque’s ninety-page book, Ichthologia Ohiensis, about Ohio River fishes, included the ten fake fish—with Audubon given full credit for each one’s discovery. Accompanying the sturgeonlike creature was the credit “This genus rests altogether upon the authority of Mr. Audubon, who presented me with a drawing of the only species belonging to it.”
Years later, when Audubon was struggling to get his work on birds into publication, he regretted the “fake fish foolery” because his rivals said some of his birds were probably nonexistent. He had invented fish; why not birds?
We can only guess the reaction of the often explosive, but always unpredictable, Rafinesque when he learned he had been duped. In his autobiography, A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe, published eighteen years after the Henderson episode, he covered his three weeks’ visit with the Audubons in one sentence: “[I] spent some days with Mr. Audubon, Ornithologist, who showed me his fine collection of colored drawings, which he has since published in England.” This is only one of many bibliographically irritating omissions in the account Rafinesque began by labeling “a narrative of my whole life.” He did not mention his wife, and he made only slight passing reference to his mother and his sister, Georgette Louise. He did not even mention his daughter Emilia.
After his 1818 trip, Rafinesque announced his “latest discoveries”—an impressive number, even considering that a few were fakes: “Abt. 25 new species of Bats, Rats and other quadrupeds, abt. 20 N. Sp of Birds. Abt. 15 N. Sp of snakes, turtles, lizards, and other reptiles, 64 N. Sp of fishes of the Ohio: more than 80 N Sp of shells, besides some new worms and many fossils. And in Botany I have collected more than 600 Sp of Plants of which one-tenth part at least are new.”
The year 1819 found Rafinesque in Lexington, Kentucky, living from,hand to mouth. He discussed his plight with John Clifford, a trustee of Transylvania College in Lexington, which was the “pioneer college of the Western wilderness,” and then went on to Philadelphia. He was delighted in late April to be offered a professorship in botany, natural history, and modern languages at Transylvania and immediately wrote his acceptance. He returned to Lexington in the summer, and in early fall began his lecture classes to “ladies and students.” As the first teacher of science west of the Alleghenies, he was paid by free board and lodging “and casual emoluments.” One of his students wrote that he “lectured in a most entertaining manner,” displaying specimens he had collected in the area rather than relying solely on texts, as was the academic custom at the time.
In 1819 and 1820 he contributed papers on foxes, sponges, and the salivation of horses to Benjamin Silliman’s American Journal of Science. This journal became the most famous organ of American scientific research, but it rejected Rafinesque’s work after 1820. “A large bundle” was returned to him because, wrote Silliman, “I became alarmed by a flood of communications and new discoveries by Rafinesque, being warned both at home and abroad against his claims....”
The prolific writer tried in various ways to raise cash to publish his output, even though he lost money on one publication after another. The Kentucky Reporter on January 26, 1820, announced that he was available to teach French to the ladies of Lexington and on September 6, 1820, carried this notice: “If anybody living on the banks of the Ohio, Kentucky, or other streams where the Muscle Shells are common, wishes to establish a manufacture of Real Pearls, I shall be willing to communicate to them all the different processes needful to the purpose of compelling the Muscle to form these Pearls, for a small consideration, or for a share in the profits.” He had no takers.