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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
Despite the financial pinch, Rafinesque’s years in Kentucky were productive ones: he classified an enormous number and variety of specimens, which he collected in his botanizing trips away from the college. When the state legislature refused to provide funds for establishing a public botanical garden, he raised the necessary money by selling stock to interested citizens, including Henry Clay; he built up the garden with forty thousand plant and animal specimens. Rafinesque today is given credit by scientists for discovering or first identifying thirty-five genera and thirty species in ichthyology, six genera and six species in mammalogy, and some seventy genera and an equal number of species in botany.
While in Kentucky, Rafinesque became interested in Indian artifacts he found, and he studied Indian languages written in pictographs. He began an extraordinary project: the translation of the Walam Olum, the epic creation legend and migration record of the Delawares. His manuscript, giving the symbols, the Indian words for them, and his translation, was a remarkable achievement, but it was not recognized as such during his lifetime; many learned men at first suspected that he had “manufactured the whole thing.”
Rafinesque taught at Transylvania for seven years, even though he found himself increasingly in conflict with the administration, which was, he said, “under the influence of the foes of science.” Other sources claim that it was Rafinesque’s “never-failing lack of tact” that impelled the college’s president to force him to give up his position in 1826. His friends paid to ship his belongings East. He followed on foot, botanizing as he went.
Then forty-three years old, he was sure the whole world was against him. He had no money; a magazine he had started had not survived beyond the first issue because, he said, the printer “dared to suppress it, at the request of some secret foes”; and he had given up his long-standing hope of securing support by wealthy patrons.
In Philadelphia he was allowed to give a few scientific lectures at the Franklin Institute, and he taught high school geography and drawing for a time, but for very meager pay. He kept body and soul together, he wrote, on salt pork and corn bread. He tried to found a botanic garden; he failed because of a “secret hostility to my industry,” he said. “I ought,” he wrote, “to have made another fortune by my Inventions, which comprized so many useful things, such as a Steam Plough, an aquatic Rail road, the Divitial Invention, &c.; but I could not meet with co-operators.” The “Divitial Invention” was a system of issuing bonds and stocks in divisible, easily traded units; according to its “inventor,” it “was stolen or modified in Baltimore by establishing new Savings Banks partly on my plan, without consulting me nor asking my leave.”
In 1832 Rafinesque’s total income was $263.87, which he made through the sale of his patent medicine “Consumption Cure” and of his booklet The Pulmist or the art to cure the Consumption; he spent $190.72 on publishing, $98.15 on food, and $92.80 on traveling, leaving him in debt at year’s end.
That same year he was awarded a gold medal by the French Society of Geography for a paper on the origins of Asiatic Negroes he had written two years earlier and sent to the French scientist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier commissioned him to collect fish specimens in the United States and send them to France. Rafinesque saw this new job as his salvation, but Cuvier died before the scheme could get into operation, and Rafinesque received no pay for his efforts.
In 1833, when Rafinesque was fifty, he wrote that species were not constant, that lower forms of life gradually developed into higher, more complex forms: “There is a tendency to deviations and mutations through plants and animals by gradual steps at remote irregular periods....” He was the first American scientist to touch on the theory of evolution.
By 1836 Rafinesque was supporting himself by selling A Life of Travels, which he had paid to have published in Philadelphia, for seventy-five cents a copy. He also tried to sell, with little success, his book-length poem The World, or Instability, which deals with topics varying from natural philosophy to politics, from love to solar spots, from angels and devils to peace and war, from the evils of “blind faith” to the keeping of the Sabbath, all unified by the idea of perpetual change:
He tried to raise money to have his daughter, by then the cast-off mistress of an English nobleman, join him in America. He never succeeded.