Skip to main content

The Oddest Of Characters

May 2024
16min read

Slovenly, impulsive, impoverished, and grotesque, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was the greatest naturalist of his age. But nobody knew it.

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.


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.”

One summer day in 1818 Rafinesque turned up in Henderson, Kentucky. Without forewarning he had come to visit John James Audubon, who was on his way to becoming the bestknown ornithologist in the United States and the greatest painter of birds. At this time the thirty-three-year-old Audubon was eking out a living with a country store and mill but spending most of his time in ornithological pursuits. He described his first meeting with Rafinesque:

“‘What an odd-looking fellow!’ said I to myself, as, while walking by the river, I observed a man landing from a boat.... He ascended with rapid steps, and … asked if I could point out the house in which Mr. Audubon resided. ‘Why, I am that man,’ said I, ‘and will gladly lead you to my dwelling.’ The traveller rubbed his hands with delight, and drawing a letter from his pocket, handed it to me … I broke the seal and read as follows: ‘My dear Audubon, I send you an odd fish, which you may prove to be undescribed, and I hope you will do so in your next letter....’”

The sealed letter introducing Rafinesque as an “odd fish” was from Louis Tarascon, a wealthy flour miller who hoped his friend Audubon would help the visitor in his mad, driving “search for new fauna.”

Audubon continued his account: “We soon reached the house, where I presented my learned guest to my family and was ordering a servant to go to the boat for [his] luggage, when he told me he had none but what he brought on his back.... The naturalist pulled off his shoes, and while engaged in drawing his stocking, not up, but down, in order to cover the holes about the heels, told me in the gayest mood imaginable that he had walked a great distance....” He refused the clean clothes offered to him.

During supper the Audubons enjoyed the “agreeable conversation” of their “ravenous guest” so much they were able to overlook his “singular appearance.” Audubon, himself so often called a “peculiar character,” wrote an interesting description of Rafinesque, including the man’s “exceedingly remarkable attire”:

“A long loose coat of yellow nankeen, much the worse for the many rubs it had got in its time, and stained all over with the juice of plants, hung loosely about him like a sack. A waistcoat of the same, with enormous pockets, and buttoned up to his chin, reached below a pair of pantaloons, the lower parts of which were buttoned down to the ankles. His beard was as long as I have known my own to be during some of my peregrinations, and his lank black hair hung loosely over his shoulders. His forehead was so broad and prominent that any tyro in phrenology would instantly have pronounced it the residence of a mind of strong powers. His words impressed an assurance of rigid truth, and as he directed the conversation to the study of the natural sciences, I listened to him with much delight....”

Rafinesque said that he had come to Henderson expressly to see Audubon’s drawings, which he hoped would include shrubs and plants he had not before seen. After eating, he asked to see the drawings at once. Audubon did not like his visitor’s impatience but laid out his portfolios.

“He chanced to turn over the drawing of a plant quite new to him,” wrote Audubon. “After inspecting it closely, he shook his head, and told me no such plant existed in nature.... I told [him] that the plant was common in the immediate neighborhood, and that I should show it to him on the morrow. ‘And why tomorrow, Mr. Audubon? Let us go now!’ We did so, and on reaching the bank of the river I pointed to the plant. [The man], I thought, had gone mad! He plucked the plants one after another, danced, hugged me in his arms, and exultingly told me that he had got not merely a new species, but a new genus. When we returned home, the naturalist opened the bundle which he had brought on his back, and took out a journal … and wrote [the plant’s] description. The examination of my drawings then went on....”

When it was very late, Audubon showed the visitor to his room and retired. Soon he heard a “great uproar” in Rafinesque’s room. “I got up, reached the place in a few moments, and opened the door, when to my astonishment, I saw my guest running round the room naked, holding the handle of my favorite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces against the walls in attempting to kill the bats, which had entered by the open window, probably attracted by the insects flying around his candle. I stood amazed, but he continued jumping and running round and round, until he was fairly exhausted, when he begged me to procure one of the animals for him, as he felt convinced they belonged to ‘a new species.’ Although I was convinced of the contrary, I took up the bow of my demolished Cremona, and administering a smart tap to each of the bats as it came up, soon got specimens enough....”

When Audubon complained about his ruined Cremona, Rafinesque said, “Never mind, Mr. Audubon ... I have the bats, and that’s enough.” Audubon made no reply, but he was very annoyed, and by morning he felt the need to avenge the loss of his cherished violin.

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.

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:

In endless shapes, mutations quick or slow, The world revolves, and all above, below, In various moulds and frames all things were cast, But none forever can endure nor last.

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.

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.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.