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Constantine Samuel Rafinesque


Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, as he is known in Europe, (October 22 1783-September 18 1840) was a nineteenth-century polymath who led a chaotic life.

Many have called him a genius, but he was also an eccentric autodidact, sometimes considered close to insanity. He was very successful in various fields of knowledge; zoologist, botanist, malacologist, meteorologist, writer, evolutionist, polyglot, translator. He wrote prolifically on such diverse topics as anthropology, biology, geology, and linguistics; but was honored in none during his lifetime. Today, it is generally recognized that he was far ahead of his time in many fields.



Rafinesque was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople, of a French father (F.G. Rafinesque, a French merchant from Marseilles) and his mother M. Schmaltz, born in Constantinople but of German descent. He spent his youth in Marseilles and was mostly self-educated. By the age of twelve, he had learned botanical Latin and had begun collecting plants for a herbarium.

In 1802, at the age of nineteen, he went to America, where he made the acquaintance of most of the young nation's few botanists; but in 1805 returned to Europe and settled in Palermo, Sicily, where he became so successful in trade that he could retire by age twenty-five and devote his time entirely to natural history. He also worked for a time as secretary to the American consul. During his stay in Sicily he studied plants and fishes, naming many of each. In 1815, after his son (named after Carolus Linnaeus) had died, he left his common-law spouse and returned to America. He lost all his books (50 boxes) and all his specimens (including more than 60,000 shells), when the ship Union, registered in Malta, foundered near the coast of Connecticut on 2 November 1815.

In New York he became a founding member of the newly established "Lyceum of Natural History." By 1818, he had collected and named more than 250 new species of plants and animals. Slowly he was rebuilding his collection of objects from nature.

In 1819 he became professor of botany at Transylvania University, Lexington (Kentucky), giving private lessons in French and Italian as well. He started at once describing all the new species of plants and animals he encountered in travels throughout the state. In 1817 his book Florula Ludoviciana, had drawn much criticism from fellow botanists, causing his writings to be ignored. He was considered as the most erratic student of higher plants. In the spring of 1826 he left the university, after quarreling with its president. A legend later developed that Rafinesque placed a curse on the university when departing. Shortly afterwards, the university's president, Horace Holley, died from yellow fever and the original main building of the university (in present-day Gratz Park) was destroyed by fire.

Rafinesque left for Philadelphia without employment. He gave public lectures and continued publishing, mostly at his own expense. His book Medical Flora, a Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America (1828-1830) became his most financially successful work. In Herbarium Rafinesquianum, he described numerous new plants. He also became interested in the collections of Lewis and Clark. Among them, he gave a scientific name to the Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and the Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

In the books he published between 1836 and 1838 he proposed hundreds of new genera and thousands of new species in the major floristic regions of the world. However most of these names were not accepted by the scientific community.


His early conclusion that the taxonomic categories called species and genera are man-made generalizations which have no physical existence led to his deep appreciation of variation in plants. He understood that such variation, through time, will lead to the development of what we call new species. But he had no explanation for the cause of variation, though he did consider hybridity a possible mechanism and, without calling it that, he had what appears to be some perception of mutation. Hence, he never developed a theory of evolution earlier than Darwin, as sometimes has been claimed, because Rafinesque had no inkling of natural selection and his understanding of geological time was far too shallow.

In 1836, in his two-volume American Nations, he published his own translation of the Walam Olum, a Lenape migration story. This has since been branded a hoax, and it clearly is not an authentic Indian document. However, having been many times the victim of practical jokes by others, Rafinesque may himself have been the victim of a hoax rather than the hoaxer.

His most notable contribution to North American prehistory was his study, especially in the Ohio Valley, of ancient earthworks, which he was first to label the "Ancient Monuments of America." He listed more than 500 such archaeological sites, many of which have since been obliterated. He never excavated. Rather, he recorded by careful measurements, sketches, and written descriptions the sites he was able to visit. Only a few of his descriptions found publication, but among his 148 Kentucky sites all of those included by Squier and Davis from that state in their famous Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848) came from his manuscripts.

Rafinesque’s Mesoamerican studies had to be centered on the linguistic data he could extract from printed sources, mostly those of travelers. It was he who designated the language spoken anciently in Haiti as Taino, a term later extended by others to cover Caribbean ethnicity. Although mistaken that the language of ancient Maya was alphabetical, he probably was first to insist that the best way to decipher its script was through the study of modern Mayan languages. His was the first explanation that its bar-and-dot symbols represent ones and fives.

He died of stomach cancer in Philadelphia. He was buried there by his friends in Ronaldson's cemetery. His considerable collections were sold as junk or destroyed. In March 1924 what was thought to be his remains were brought back to Transylvania University to rest in a tomb under a stone marked by the words "Honor to whom honor is overdue."

In 1841 Thomas Nuttall proposed, in his honor, the genus name Rafinesquia, (family Asteraceae), with two species. Rafinesque himself had proposed this name twice, but was each time turned down. Asa Gray named in 1853 the second species.

  • Rafinesquia californica Nutt. (California Plumeseed, California Chicory)
  • Rafinesquia neomexicana A.Gray (Desert Chicory, Plumeseed)

His scientific work has been gaining more and more recognition in recent years. He was an overly enthusiastic, but accurate observer driven by a monomaniacal desire to name every object he encountered in nature.

The standard botanical author abbreviation Raf. is applied to species he described.

Major works

  • Caratteri di Alcuni Nuovi Generi e Nuove Specie di Animali e Piante della Sicilia, Palermo 1810
  • Specchio delle Scienze, Palermo 1814
  • Précis des Découvertes et Travaux Somiologiques, Palermo 1814
  • Principes Fondamentaux de Somiologie, Palermo 1814
  • Analyse de la Nature, Palermo 1815
  • Florula Ludoviciana, New York 1817
  • Ichthyologia Ohiensis, Lexington 1820
  • Ancient History, or Annals of Kentucky, Frankfort 1824
  • Neogenyton, Lexington 1825
  • Medical Flora, a Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America (two volumes), Philadelphia 1828, 1830
  • Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, Philadelphia 1832-1833
  • Herbarium Rafinesquianum, Philadelphia 1833
  • A Life of Travels, Philadelphia 1836 On line (pdf)
  • Flora Telluriana (four parts), Philadelphia 1836
  • The American Nations (two volumes), Philadelphia 1836
  • New Flora and Botany of North America (four parts), Philadelphia 1836-1838
  • Genius and Spirit of the Hebrew Bible, Philadelphia 1838
  • Alsographia Americana, Philadelphia 1838
  • Sylva Telluriana, Philadelphia 1838
  • Autikon Botanikon, Philadelphia 1840
  • The Good Book (Amenities of Nature), Philadelphia 1840

Many of these works are available on line at Gallica and the Library of Congress.


  • Betts, Edwin M., "The Correspondence between Constantine Samuel Rafinesque and Thomas Jefferson." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 87, No. 5, 1944.
  • Boewe, Charles. "Editing Rafinesque Holographs: the Case of the [Charles Wilkins] Short Letters." Filson Club History Quarterly, Vol. 54, 1980.


  • Call, Richard Ellsworth. 1895. The Life and Writings of Rafinesque. Filson Club Publications, Louisville, KY.
  • Fitzpatrick, T. J. 1911. Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography. Historical Department of Iowa, Des Moines, IA.
  • Dupre, Huntley. 1945. Rafinesque in Lexington, 1819-1826. Bur Press, Lexington, KY.
  • Merrill, Elmer D. 1949. Index Rafinesquianus. Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, MA. (Indexes Rafinesque's plant names.)
  • Black, Glenn A., et al. 1954. Walam Olum, or: Red Score, the Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, a New Translation, Interpreted by Linguistic, Historical, Archaeological, Ethnological, and Physical Anthropological Studies. Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Boewe, Charles (Ed.). 1982. Fitzpatrick's Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography, revised by Charles Boewe. M & S Press, Weston, MA.
  • Boewe, Charles (Ed.). 2001. Mantissa: A Supplement to Fitzpatrick's Rafinesque. M & S Press, Providence, RI.
  • Boewe, Charles (Ed.). 2003. Profiles of Rafinesque. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.
  • Boewe, Charles. 2004. C.S. Rafinesque and Ohio Valley Archaeology. Center for Ancient American Studies, Barnardsville, NC.
  • Boewe, Charles (Ed.). 2005. A C.S. Rafinesque Anthology. McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC.
  • Sterling, K. B. (Ed.). 1978. Rafinesque. Autobiography and Lives. Arno Press, New York, NY. (Reprints Rafinesque's autobiography and the books by Call and Fitzpatrick.)
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Constantine_Samuel_Rafinesque". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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