Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783 - 1840)
Back to Author Index Biography
Other Web Sources
Biography1783 October 22, born in Constantinople, Turkey
childhood in Marseilles, where his father is a merchant
1794 father sends his two sons to America to avoid the French Revolution
1802 Constantine becomes a merchant's clerk, botanizes in his spare time
1805 emigrates to Sicily
marries Josephine Vaccaro
1815 returns to America, loses all belongings and wife
1819 appointed professor of natural history and modern languages at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky
1826 leaves the university, moves to Philadelphia
1840 dies in obscurity
As a child in Marseilles (by the age of four, if we are to believe him), Rafinesque had already taught himself Latin, read the major biological works available, and started a small herbarium. When he went to America (for the first time), he definitely started to botanize.
Upon arrival in Sicily, he found out that the French were not very popular there, and so combined his father's name with that of his mother as Rafinesque-Schmaltz, for camouflage. You may see his name listed in this form from time to time. In Sicily, he discovered Scilla maritima, a medicinal plant, growing wild in abundance and made a lot of money shipping it to England and Russia, until the Sicilians realized what he was doing and took over the business for himself.
I just have to quote Harry Baker Humphrey on the circumstances of Rafinesque's return to America:
In 1815, Rafinesque again set sail for the United States, taking with him many manuscripts, numerous drawings, notebooks, and unpublished papers. After an ocean voyage of six months' duration, the ship foundered upon a rock just outside the harbor of New London, Connecticut. Rafinesque lost everything that he valued most - - his books and manuscripts, his plant collections and notebooks - - all that he possessed save some of his money. It was after this episode that his wife deserted him to live with the Sicilian actor, Giovanni Pizzalour.
At this time, Rafinesque is mainly a colorful figure in American biology, not one of any real authority (quite the opposite, in fact). He seems to have combined a complete lack of critical thinking regarding his own ideas and "discoveries" with a compulsive desire to share those ideas with the world. He declared a tremendous number of new species, mostly in two "scientific" journals that he edited, published, and wrote all the contents for. Most of these are no longer used by the scientific community, as he frequently ignored previous names for the same organism, named the same organism several times, and made organisms up. Sometimes he got things right, of course, and there are taxa scattered all over biology that bear his citation; he seems to have done the best with fish (possibly because he got to the Mississippi before many other scientists, and was able to name a lot of things before they got there). He did not limit his intellectual output to biology, producing voluminous writings on linguistics, anthropology (especially of Native Americans), and philosophy, all of which he approached with the same standards.
The websites below (especially the one I've designated his home page) fill in much more detail (and color!) than I have here. You can get a flavor of his scientific reputation by looking at the two websites Pro and Con the authenticity of the Walum Olam, a Lenape (Native American) writtten document allegedly discovered and translated by him. There seem to be periodic attempts by popular writers on science to rehabilitate him as someone who was "misunderstood" or "ahead of his time"; and Elmer Drew Merrill, a real botanist, has issued a bibliography of Rafinesque's botanical names (6700 binomials, probably more than had been declared for the entire country at that time). But by and large, there haven't been any attempts on the part of biologists (or scholars in the other fields in which he worked) to attempt to make use of his legacy.
Back to top
Harry Baker Humphrey (1961) Makers of North American Botany
Back to top
Home PageRafinesque Page
Other Web SourcesSmithsonian article on Rafinesque
Rafinesque's Alligator Gar
Back to top