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Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Constantine Samuel Rafinesque
    Book Description:

    Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was a quintessential nineteenth-century American scientist and naturalist. Exalted by some, cursed by others, Rafinesque gave Latin names to over 6,700 plant species, was acknowledged by Darwin for his early insights into biological variation, and is frequently mentioned in the great natural history archives. Yet he has been almost forgotten in our own day. During his long career, which included some five years as an innovative professor at Transylvania University in Kentucky, Rafinesque's colorful and sometimes difficult personality led to troubles with his colleagues. InConstantine Samuel Rafinesque, the first full-length biography of this brilliant, original, and misunderstood naturalist, Leonard Warren presents a fair and surprising look at Rafinesque's life and contributions to the world of science.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4962-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. 1-5)

    In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, just as creditable scientific studies were emerging in America, many extraordinarily creative people found their way to the United States from Europe. None was more perplexing and exceptional than Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a force of nature who deservedly has had more written about him than almost any other nineteenthcentury American natural scientist, and in some circles he has become an intriguing cult figure. A poet and a philosopher, he was the first professor of Natural History in the Midwest—the American frontier—and here he did his classic work on the fish of...

  7. Chapter 1 IN THE BEGINNING
    (pp. 6-12)

    Constantine Samuel Rafinesque took his first breath of air on October 22, 1783, in a Christian suburb of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), an ancient city that gave him his name, and after an extraordinary life, he died in Philadelphia on September 18, 1840.

    Constantinople had produced no ordinary human being. A brilliant, ambitious man of the highest intelligence with a fantastic imagination, but the barest of diplomatic skills, he lived his entangled life with ferocious energy. His main love was botany, and his most pleasurable occupation was the search for new plants in the wilderness of America. To do so he...

    (pp. 13-34)

    Portentously, as the nineteen-year-old Rafinesque stepped off the ship onto American soil he recorded: “The first plant that I picked up was also a new plant, then calledDraba verna,and that I calledDr. Americana,altho’ the American Botanists would not believe me; but Decandole [de Candolle] has ever since made with it the new GenusErophila!this is the emblem of many discoveries of mine, of which ignorance has doubted, till science has prove that I was right:”² The “new plant” he had reclassified was, in fact,Draba verna,a cruciferous plant, a common, well-known weed in Europe...

  9. Chapter 3 SICILY, 1805–1815
    (pp. 35-48)

    The Rafinesque brothers boarded the ship, theTwo Sisters,in late December 1804 bound for Leghorn (Livorno), Italy, but as they left Philadelphia heading for the open sea, an unusually early drop in temperature caused the Delaware River to freeze over in a matter of hours. After several weeks, cutting through miles of frozen river, they finally reached Delaware Bay, and they were on their way. A stormy crossing of the Atlantic took thirty days, Gibraltar was sighted, and six days later they reached Leghorn—only to be shipwrecked at the entrance to the harbor. To add to their misery,...

    (pp. 49-55)

    While the young republic was taking shape, American natural historians felt that their first task was to take inventory of the virgin riches of their land, to classify and describe, and to fit the data into a Christian cosmology; for the historians, to describe them was to understand. They became field-workers, exploring the wilderness, bringing back specimens that they preserved and drew, and they established gardens and museums. In this initial period, there was little inclination to experiment when there was so much new to find, describe, and classify in the endless expanses of their country. At the beginning of...

  11. Chapter 5 RETURN TO AMERICA, 1815–1818
    (pp. 56-70)

    In July 1815, Rafinesque sailed from Palermo on theUnion of Maltadestined for New York. He carried with him “a large parcel of drugs and merchandize, besides 50 boxes containing my herbal [20,000 specimens in 2,000 species], cabinet collections, and part of my library. I took all my manuscripts with me, including 2,000 maps and drawings, 300 copperplates, &c. My collection of shells was so large as to include 600,000 specimens large and small. My herbal was so large that I left part of it.”¹

    The trip was painfully long, lasting over three months, with a three-day stop at...

  12. Chapter 6 GOING WEST, 1818
    (pp. 71-78)

    In May 1818, Rafinesque began a two thousand mile westward journey from Philadelphia. A stage took him to Lancaster, and from there he walked, crossed several ranges of the Alleghenies on his way to Pittsburgh, collected rare plants and shells, studied the geology of central Pennsylvania, and inspected coal mines. Throughout his career, he passed back and forth between the lonely peace of the countryside and the tensions of the city, and though he considered himself an urban sophisticate intrigued by commerce, the locomotive, and steam power, he reveled in a pastoral setting.

    Pioneers, trekking through the wilderness to western...

  13. Chapter 7 KENTUCKY, 1819–1826
    (pp. 79-99)

    Rafinesque’s return to Lexington from Philadelphia began with a journey by steamboat to Baltimore. From there he walked to Frederick, Maryland, and Harper’s Ferry, followed the Potomac River to the Cumberland, and then crossed the Allegheny Mountains to reach Pittsburgh. Here he delivered his map of the Ohio River Valley, carefully constructed from information gained on his previous trip to the region, to the firm of Messrs. Cramer and Spear, who paid him a disappointing one hundred dollars. He continued his trip on a keelboat, walking part of the time, surveying Indian mounds at Marietta, Ohio, and collecting “many fine...

    (pp. 100-108)

    Rafinesque identified himself with the urban gentry of America, and though he enjoyed his association with the American middle class, he was never a part of it—this threadbare, spiritual aristocrat who hobnobbed with the rich. His colleagues accepted the fact that he was a kind of wizard, and being an intellectual ascetic, he was prepared to suffer lonely deprivation, living by his wits, and thereby achieving a certain independence. His aim was to spend as much time botanizing, collecting, thinking, and writing as was possible, but he was obliged to earn enough money to survive and to satisfy his...

    (pp. 109-116)

    His banking affairs in disarray, Rafinesque felt obliged to return to Lexington, burdened by his “unlucky detention” and failure in Washington and having not visited New York as he had planned. Finished with his financial and banking affairs for the present, Rafinesque left Philadelphia, traveled westward by coach through Pennsylvania to the foothills of the Alleghenies, and then for a fourth time he walked over the mountains to West Virginia and Ohio. On the way, he examined ancient monuments of Native Americans in Ohio, visiting museums and colleges where he eagerly sought invitations to lecture.

    Rafinesque recorded what he saw...

  16. Chapter 10 THE MEDICINE MAN
    (pp. 117-126)

    Rafinesque was contemptuous of the medical practices of his day, resolute in his rejection of what trained, “allopathic” physicians had to offer, which in fact was very little. Most physicians were graduates of medical schools, but competency tests did not exist and licensing to practice was alarmingly inadequate. Many of their nostrums (antimony, calomel, opiates, arsenate, strychnine, prussic acid) and therapeutic procedures (bleeding, purging, blistering, heat treatment, leeching) were unquestionably useless. In an age without anesthesia and no understanding of sepsis, surgical operations were sentences of acute pain, intense suffering, or death. Rafinesque, when only nineteen years old, had wisely...

    (pp. 127-147)

    Rafinesque was rooted in the age of the Enlightenment, with its deist view of the world. Earnest and thoughtful investigations of human origins and history were not uncommon as the biblical version of human beginnings was increasingly found wanting and mythic. Radical thinkers were formulating the idea of a world based on reason, morality, and universal physical laws, presided over by a God of limited jurisdiction—a chief architect and little more. According to Genesis, all humans arose from a single act of creation, and the present-day assortment of human “races” was the result of change induced by exposure to...

  18. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  19. Chapter 12 WALAM OLUM
    (pp. 148-155)

    The saga of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians, their epic wandering from Asia to the shores of the Delaware River, was recorded in theWalam Olum(“ Red Score” or “Painted Sticks”), an ancient document of immense importance, if it proved to be authentic. “Discovered” and translated by Rafinesque, its true origin was an enigma, and even the authenticity of the document itself was challenged by skeptics for more than one and a half centuries. The chronicle encompassed nothing less than a Creation myth, a flood legend, the entry of the tribe from Asia to Alaska, their migration to...

  20. Chapter 13 BOTANY AND ZOOLOGY
    (pp. 156-170)

    The era between the publication of Linnaeus’sSystema Naturaeand Darwin’sOrigin of Species,two of the greatest landmarks in the history of biology, was one of identifying and classifying organisms, and the greatest of all identifiers of species at that time was Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. Although the breadth of his interests was remarkable, there is no doubt that he was primarily a botanist and a zoologist, especially concerned with rational order in biology. He was a natural historian rather than a scientist, cataloguing everything in sight—birds, molluscs, fish, snakes, lizards, turtles, insects, sponges, crustacea, and mammals¹— creating systems...

    (pp. 171-191)

    His years of teaching at Transylvania University at a hasty end, Philadelphia became Rafinesque’s headquarters in September 1826 and remained so for the last fourteen years of his life. He returned to a city that was no longer preeminent in the artistic and cultural life of the nation, nor was it any longer first in foreign trade, having ceded the honor to New York, Boston, and Baltimore. To its rescue came iron and a nearby source of power—anthracite—that was mined just up the Schuylkill River, so by 1828 Philadelphia had become a city of iron foundries and the...

  22. Chapter 15 LAST DAYS
    (pp. 192-200)

    In his last years, Rafinesque settled into a vigorous routine, attending to his banking interests and writing and publishing accounts of thousands of specimens obtained from colleagues or brought from Kentucky. He roamed less frequently, but on occasion he could not resist the urge to flee into the wilderness, leaving his troubles behind. In 1835 he explored the Allegheny region, and the next year the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.¹ There is little record of travel after this, clearly a period of withdrawal into the city, struggling to stay afloat financially to feed his publishing hunger.

    At the time of...

    (pp. 201-210)

    What are we to make of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque? Assuredly, he is unique in the annals of American Natural History, impossible to fully understand, especially if his writing has not been read in all its breadth. Considered judgments about him have vacillated over time, but few have ever doubted his brilliance and his capacity to digest immense amounts of information. With much truth, Ewan has written of him that he was “the most enigmatic and controversial figure in American Natural History.”¹ The suggestion has been made that the wordrafinesqueshould be introduced into the language, a companion topicturesque...

  24. NOTES
    (pp. 211-230)
    (pp. 231-240)
  26. INDEX
    (pp. 241-252)