- 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
Rafinesque spent his last years in a garret in a Philadelphia slum. After a long illness he died there of cancer in 1840 at the age of fifty-six. His landlord refused to release the body, saying he would sell it to a medical college to secure unpaid rent. But two friends broke into the room in the middle of the night; they put a rope around the body, lowered it through a window to the street, and buried it in Ronaldson’s Cemetery.
The scientist’s will, written in 1835, provided for the sale of his large, odd assortment of possessions, most of the proceeds of which Rafinesque wished to go to his daughter. Eight truckloads of his effects were displayed for sale. His gold medal sold for $16.55; some of his manuscripts and notebooks and specimens brought a few dollars, but many ended in a furnace. When all was settled, the estate was in debt to the administrators to the amount of $14.43.
In 1919 a Pennsylvanian named Henry Mercer located Rafinesque’s long-forgotten grave and put there a headstone bearing the inscription “Honor to Whom Honor Is Overdue.” Five years later Rafinesque’s bones were moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and placed in a vault in Transylvania College, where, in 1940, a splendid Rafinesque Centennial Memorial was held to honor the extraordinary scientist who had taught there when the school was young.
One paragraph in Rafinesque’s will left no doubt about his feelings toward a society that had not adequately rewarded his greatness: “If anybody has thought himself wronged by me, I ask their pardon. I never did anything wrong willingly, but being beset by knaves and rivals may have been compelled to act sometimes in a way not exactly as I should have chosen, had I been fairly dealt with by others.”
Some claim it was Rafinesque’s “never-failing lack of tact” that cost him his college job and forced him to leave Kentucky and head back East.