Today, Halloween 2011, we pay tribute to one of natural sciences most enigmatic and haunting figures.
Left: Constantine Samueul Rafineque. Image published before 1923,and in the US public domain.
Right: You may recognize this image from the banner of our blog. This is an image of a fish from Rafinesque's 1818 field notes taken in Kentucky, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and perhaps other eastern states. All images in this article are from the same field book.
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1788-1840) was the quintessential Renaissance Man. He instructed himself in the various disciplines of the natural sciences—especially Ichthyology, Botany, and Malacology—as well as cultural Anthropology and Linguistics. Many of his forward thinking ideas branded him an eccentric during his lifetime. One of these ideas, his patented Divitial Invention, allowed divided portions of a bank stock of deposit certificates to circulate as currency. He was also an advocate for the use of fireproof materials to build homes. Rafinesque is even attributed with discovering a botanical cure for tuberculosis, although this cannot be verified as there is now no known documentation on the exact ingredients of his remedy. Medical Flora of the United States (1828), which contained botanical medical cures, was one of Rafinesque’s most successful publications.
Rafinesque offended many of his contemporaries in the American natural science community with his unconventional and forward thinking ideas. Yet, a look at Rafinesque’s collection of notebooks from 1815-1834 reveals meticulous work that should not go unrecognized. Informative and mesmerizing, Rafinesque’s notes transport readers and researchers to the rich 19th Century, east coast landscape in which he collected many zoological and botanical specimen.
Perhaps a reflection of his eccentricity, Rafinesque’s field notes do not seem to lie static on the page, but rather jump up to greet the reader’s curiosity of the natural world. Beautiful sketches of ichthyologic, botanical, and other specimens are found throughout the collection. Spectacular details portray the scales of a fish, folds on the underside of a mushroom, and the ridges on a shell. Thorough descriptions and often measurements are included with each sketch.
Rafinesque spent most of his life traveling, according to his autobiography, “A Life of Travels”, and he greatly enjoyed being outdoors. Fittingly, his collection of field books also incorporates a number of bucolic landscape sketches and hand drawn maps. These additional sketches will hopefully guide researchers through the locations in which he collected and allow them to see through his eyes.
Although some of Rafinesque’s inventive schemes were profitable enough to finance his extensive traveling and field research for some time, he fell badly into debt by the time of his death in 1840. Recognized by some as brilliant, he nevertheless died a largely unappreciated man. In the more than one and a half centuries since his death, however, scholars and researchers have come to recognize Rafinesque’s contributions to science. Today, he is credited for having identified a number of new species. Additionally, he has two genre, Rafinesquia (family Asteraceae) and Rafinesquina (family Rafinesquinidae), named after him. In fact, I was pleased to see one of his namesakes listed as a specimen collected in one of the paleontologist G. Arthur Cooper’s field books. I am also pleased to think that if Rafinesque had lived to see today, he would find many of his “crazy” ideas validated.
Over 150 years after his death, much about Rafinesque’s life and work remains puzzling. For one, there’s his successful hoax (see last week’s article)—but was it really a hoax? It is generally accepted as such but others still subscribe to the validity of his claims. Add to that his many ideas spanning a variety of disciplines, which were so far ahead of his time that it seems as if he possessed a crystal ball. Finally, there is his ghost. Rafinesque died practically penniless and in debt. His landlord planned to sell his corpse to science but, as the story goes, Rafinesque’s friends stole his body from the window of his apartment and gave it a proper burial. Years later, his body was exhumed and transported to Transyvlania Univsersity, where he had been a respected professor for seven years. Today, he is supposedly interred under the steps of Old Morrison, a Transylvania University building that Rafinesque is said to haunt to this day.
1. Flannery, Michael A. The Medicine and Medicinal Plants of C. S. Rafinesque. Economic Botany, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1998), pp. 27-43.
2. Biography.youdictionary.com. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque Biography. Accessed in 2011 from http://biography.yourdictionary.com/constantine-samuel-rafinesque.
3. Endersby, J. ‘The vagaries of a Rafinesque’: imagining and classifying American nature. Studies of History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science, Vol. 40, No. 3 (September 2009), pp. 167-178. http://www.jimendersby.com/PDF/Endersby_Vagaries_2009.pdf
4. Taylor, Raymond L. Reviewed work(s): A Life of Travels, by C. S. Rafinesque: Being a Verbatim and Literatim Reprint of the Original and Only Edition by C. S. Rafinesque; Francis W. Pennell. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1945), pp. 213-221.
5. Waymarking.com. Rafinesque, The Man and The Myth. Accessed in 2011 from http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM21F2_Old_Morrison_Transylvania_University_Lexington_KY.
6.Wikipedia.org. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. Accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_Samuel_Rafinesque, October 2011.