A Short Biographical Sketch of Rafinesque

R. Glen Spruling
Chairmen of Department of Neurosurgery of
University of Louisville School of Medicine 1928
Presented to the Innominent Societ

            Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was born in a suburb of Constantinople, Turkey, October 22,1783. His father was a French merchant of Marseilles. His mother, while of German parentage, was born and reared in Greece. His father’s mercantile business required him to travel a great part of the time in distant lands, so the child’s early education was left almost wholly to the mother. This, she apparently did well, for she undoubtedly a woman of intelligence and refinement. Their home in Marseilles was ideally located to stimulate the child’s interest in natural history; lovely gardens of flowers and great orchards of fruits and shrbs surrounded it. When the boy was ten years of age, his father died, a victim of yellow fever. This was just at the beginning of the French Revolution, so the mother moved her household to Italy fearing the terrible excesses then rampart in France. He studied geometry, geography, history, drawing, and English. He apparently developed a taste for reading very early; he states that before the age of twelve years, he had read the great universal history and one thousand other volumes on a variety of subjects. At the age of fifteen, we find the following paragraph in one of his essays:

“I had made to myself a small garden in a wild and remote place. I began the study of Fishes and Birds; I drew them and collected shells and Crabs. Daudin, of Paris, who published then a natural history of birds, was my first correspondent among the learned, and I communicated to him some observations on Birds. I drew maps, copied those of rare works, and took topographical surveys; these were my first essays in geography.”

He further says, “ I began to hunt, but the first bird I shot was a poor Parus, whose death appeared a cruelty to me, and I have never been able to become an unfeeling hunter.” It is said of Darwin that he had the same feeling for animals, even the very lowest, and never allowed himself to harm them willfully or knowingly.

It appears as thought Rafinesque had few interests in his youth other than his studies. He presumably spent all of his time in study and in collecting both plant and animal life. He had no fondness for sports or games, and associated but little with youths of his own age. These facts probably serve to explain his reticence in social intercourse in later years. His early education then was obtained form the teachings of his mother and private tutors. He never attended the public schools or universities. Unfortunately his earliest training in natural history was also unguided; as one great naturalist says of him, “ It is certain had he been firmly guided by some master hand, he would have been one of the worlds greatest naturalists.”

At the age of nineteen he came first to America, “provided as he says with an adventu4rous spirit sand many letters of introduction.” He landed in Philadelphia, April 18, 1802. He obtained a position as clerkship for s a shipping company, a position that he held during the first year of his stay in Philadelphia. All of his spare time was devoted to studying animal and plant life around the city. He at once found what he considered to be a new species of plant life about which he wrote a lengthy report. It was later found, whoever, that the species he described had long since been recognized and classified.

Soon came the yellow fever epidemic, and Rafinesque being mortally afraid of the scourge that killed his father left the city directly and took refuge in a small Pennsylvania town. He spent the entire summer traveling over the hills and mountains, studying the animal and plant life of the community. It is said that every plant, which he collected, was laboriously described in his notebook. After a summer of freedom from office duties, he was reluctant to return to a business life and accepted instead a position as secretary to a wealthy gentleman in Philadelphia. He soon tired of this place also and resigned and determined to devote his time to nature study. After being in America for three years, some opportunity arose in Sicily, which he accepted, and there he remained for the next ten years. Those ten years were busy ones for him. He made extensive studies of the animal and plant life of the island, and wile not yet twenty-one years of age, he began an extensive series of publications on natural History. Here he seemed to have worked at many jobs. For one thing, he manufactured squills for the European and American Markets, from which he apparently made considerable money. Another venture was the manufacture and dispensing of brandy. Shortly after arriving in Sicily, he became enamored with a Sicilian woman, who appears to have been an unfortunate choice from the standpoint of a wife. It would seem from the available information that their marriage was never consummated in legal form. To this union was born a daughter and a son. The son died in early infancy. Ten years later, Rafinesque was shipwrecked, and his wife suddenly married a comedian and dissipated all the property, which he had left, in her hands. The daughter also had a disappointing career, inasmuch as she followed the career of a stage singer and became the mother of an illegitimate daughter. This period of residency in Sicily had little importance on his life other than the disappointments and suffering in his marital relationships and also the opportunity he had for studying the natural history of the island.

In his description of Sicily, occurs almost the only epigrammatic writing that was every been found in any of Rafinesque’s works; says he,

“ Sicily offers a fruitful soil, a delightful climate, excellent productions, perfidious men, deceitful women.”

After a sojourn on ten years he left Sicily and Europe forever, bound for his second visit to America. Apparently he had been successful in his business ventures as he left the island with considerable wealth. The story of the second landing of Rafinesque in America reads like a romance.

“It was midnight of the second of November 1815, in a dense fog, at the eastern end of long island sound, that the good ship which had brought Rafinesque and his possessions across the Atlantic in safety went down. Striking on the rocks, her keel was entirely torn away, and when a swell landed her beyond the rocks she rapidly filled and sank. Down with her went the results of years of toil and of labor, both mercantile and scientific. To quote in his own language:

“ I had lost everything, my fortune, my share of the cargo, my collections and labors fro twenty 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.”

According to one biographer, this misfortune marks the beginning of that mental state which makes his scientific work in later years the subject of the severest criticism. Rafinesque appears never to have had known another prosperous business venture. He soon became a member of that class of men who imagine that the hand of every other man is against him. This tone follows his writings from this time onward. Even on his deathbed, when his will was rewritten, did the imaginary persecution persist.

He wandered around New York State for a period of months and finally landed in Philadelphia, where he again met his old friend, John D. Clifford, then a resident of Lexington. In him he found a warm and sympathetic friend, and it was through his influence that he made his first pilgrimage to Kentucky in 1818. His journey was accomplished by crossing the Alleghenies by foot and horseback and down the Ohio River on a flat boat. The trip down the Ohio was of particular interest to him because of the opportunity it afforded for the study of fishes of the Ohio River.

His first stop in the Ohio Valley was at Shipping Port, which is now within corporation limits of Louisville. While here, he visited with some old friends of his Philadelphia days, who were operating a large flouring mill here.  He did a great deal of exploring around Louisville, studying fishes and shells of the river and making large collections of the vegetation of the vicinity, all of which was quite new to Rafinesque.

 Hs next stop was at Henderson, Kentucky. There he had a letter of introduction to John J. Audobon, the well-known ethnologist with whom he spent three weeks. Audobon had attained considerable reputation in the scientific world; in fact he is now considered to be one of the outstanding Kentucky naturalists. The records of Audubon concerning Rafinesque are to me exceedingly illuminating and perhaps no better description of his personality exists than the one written by him. His account runs as follows:

“What an odd-looking fellow! Said I to myself, as, while walking by the river, I observed a man landing from a boat, with what I thought a bundle of dried clover on his back. How the boatmen stare at him! Surely he must be an original. He ascended with rapid step, and, approaching me, asked if I could point out the house in which Mr. Audubon resided? ‘Why I am the man,’ said I, ‘ and will gladly lead you to my dwelling,’ the traveler rubbed his hands together with delight, and drawing a letter from his pocket handed it to me without any remark, 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 hope you will do so in your next letter. Believe me always your friend, B.’

With all the simplicity of a woodsman, I asked the bearer where the odd fish was; when he smiled, rubbed his eyes, and with the greatest humor said, ‘I am that odd fish, I presume, Mr. Audubon.’ I felt confounded and blushed, but contrived to stammer an apology.

“We soon reached the house, when I presented by 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. He then loosened the pack of weeds which he first drawn my attention. The ladies were a little surprised, but I checked their critical glances fro the moment. The naturalist pulled off his show and while engaged in drawing his stockings not up, but down, in order to cover the holes about the heels, told us in the gayest mood imaginable that he had walked a great distance and had only taken a passage on board the ark, to be put on this shore, and that he was sorry his apparel had suffered so much from his late journey. Clean clothes were offered but he would not accept them and it was with evident reluctance that he performed the lavations usual on such occasions before he sat down to dinner.”

“He chanced to turn over the drawing of a plant quite new to him. After inspecting it closely, he shook his head, and told me no such plant existed in nature:-- for he, although a highly scientific man, was suspicious to a fault, and believed such plants only to exist as he had himself seen, or such as, having been discovered of old, had, according to Father Malebranche’s expression, acquired a ‘venerable beard’. I told my guest that the plant was common in the immediate neighborhood, and that I would show it to him on the morrow. And why tomorrow, Mr. Audubon: let us go now! We will so; and on reaching the river I pointed to the plant. I thought he had gone mad. He plucked the plants one after another, danced, hugged me to his arms, and exultingly told me that he had got, ‘ Not merely a new species, but a new genus.”

When it waxed later, I showed him to the apartment intended for him during his stay, and endeavored to render him comfortable, leaving him writing materials in abundance. I was, in deed, heartily glad to have a naturalist under my roof. We had all retired to rest. Every person of the household was in deep slumber, save myself, when of a sudden I heard a great uproar in the naturalist’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 about 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 pats, which had entered by the open window, probably attracted by the insects flying around his candle. I stood amazed, but he continued running around and around, 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 to the contrary, t took up the bow of my demolished Cremona, and administering a smart tap on each of the bats as it came up, soon got specimens enough.

He remained with us for three weeks and collected multitudes of plants, shells, and bats, and fishes. We were perfectly reconciled to his oddities and finding him a most agreeable and intelligent companion, hoped that his sojourn might be of long duration. But one evening, when tea was prepared, and we expected him to join the family, he was nowhere to be found; his grasses and other valuables were all removed from his room. 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 gar-fish or had taken to his heels, were matters of conjecture; nor was it until some weeks later, that a letter from him, thanking us for our attention, assured me of his safety.”

While this description of Rafinesque is considered by some to be grossly exaggerated; yet it stands as being the most authentic description of the man’s personality on record. To show the child-like mind of the man, a further incidence will bear repeating. During his stay in Henderson, Audubon drew figures of some impossible fish, giving them gaudy coloration and glowing descriptions and supplied Rafinesque with what purported to be notes of fact; all of these Rafinesque duly copied into his own notebook. Later Rafinesque used these so-called facts as the basis of new genera and species. Of course Audubon did it all for a joke, but Rafinesque took these facts and used them in his scientific writings without further investigation.

After leaving Henderson, he went to Shepherdsville and Frankfort enroot to Lexington. On arriving there, he found his friend, Clifford, who accorded him a warm reception. While there, Clifford secured for him an appointment to a professorship in Transylvania University. The university was now under the regime of Dr. Holley. He approved Rafnesque’s appointment as professor of Natural History and Botany. He also taught classes in French and Italian. Those were the days of classical education purely and simply, and there were no interest in any other toots than those, which had the cabalistic signs of men who thought and wrote two thousand or more years ago.

Rafinesque was the first man of scientific endeavor other than medical men to join the faculty. For that reason, it would be impossible to find any degree of literary difference so marked as that between him and his associate professors. They were in taste and pursuit, as unlike as men could be. From his appointment until the end of his stay in Lexington, there was a continual warfare between those fostering the classics and himself, whose whole interest was science. He was further handicapped because his bearing and manners were entirely foreign to his surroundings. He was considered an eccentric and undoubtedly was one. Shortly after becoming established in Lexington, Clifford, his one friend in this vicinity, died. It is said that he was the only man whom Rafinesque ever loved.  In fact, Clifford was the only man in all of his writings who was ever mentioned with any esteem.

Rafinesque remained in Lexington for seven years. His life there was a busy one. He continued his excursions of the surrounding country, and collected a great mass of material. Many papers were written most of which were never published.

According to all reports, Rafinesque was a constant visitor at the Holley home. It was said that Mrs. Holley took a special interest in the man and befriended him on every occasion. She saw to it that his clothing was kept in repair; that he was included in the social gatherings of the place. Yet with all the kindnesses and many agreeable hours spent in each other’s company, we find the following quotation in Rafinesque’s memoirs:

“I returned to Frankfort and to Lexington—to evince Holley’s hatred against sciences and discoveries, he had broken open my rooms, given one to the students, and thrown all my effects, books and collections in a heap in the other. He had also deprived me of my position as Librarian and my board in the College. I had to put up with all this to avoid beginning lawsuits. I took lodgings in town and carried there all my effects; thus leaving the College with curses on it and Holley; who were both reached by them soon after, since he died next year at sea of the yellow fever, caught I New Orleans, having been driven from Lexington by public opinion; and the College has been burnt in 1828 with all its contents. But Cliffors’s cabinet was saved (like mine) by being removed previously like mine, and is now partly in Cincinnati and partly in Philadelphia. This was a lucky escape.”

During his stay in Lexington, he occupied rooms in the College building. He apparently entered into his schoolwork with a considerable ardor, but according to many accounts given by former students, his courses were always poorly attended and many of those who did attend were there to provoke fun. He was known by his associates and by the student body as an escent5ic. In 1823, Rafinesque drew up an extensive plan for a botanical garden at Lexington. He tried to have a measure passed by the Legislature in Frankfort, permitting funds to be available for this project, but the effort failed. Later, however, he organized a corporation for financing the Botany garden and it was finally under way. Due, however, to poor management and foresight, the garden was only partially planted when the funds were exhausted, and the project was finally abandoned.

He seemed to have been particularly impressed with his title of professor, as all of his social and business correspondence was signed as “Professor Rafinesque”. He conducted many small enterprises while in Lexington, the chief of them were paid courses of lectures, which he proposed to tell to the towns people on a great variety of subjects. For instance, one of his advertisements in the newspaper reads as follows:

“Professor Rafinesque teaches the French, Italian and Spanish Languages, in the University and gives also private lessons to the ladies in town.”

“He will give private instruction in the University or in town in the following branches—Elements of useful knowledge, Botany, Geometry, Map-drawing, etc.” (Kentucky Reporter, January 15, 1821).

Another reads: -

Lectures on Phrenology.

Professor Rafinesque will deliver a discourse by request on Phrenology Craniology & the Analysis of the Human mind, o this evening at 7 o’clock in the medical room.

Admission fifty cents. Tickets to be had of Mr.McNitt, at the lecture room or at Mr. Deveins.”

He was also very fond of writing personal letters to men of prominence. For instance, there are several letters on file, which are addressed to Thomas Jefferson, then the president of the United States. There, however, are no records of him having received replies from these important personages.

Rafinesque left Lexington, Kentucky in June 1823. Taking with him all of his possessions. He left Transylvania of his own accord, driven to desperation by the treatment accorded his collections. He then made his home I Philadelphia. It is very different to follow the last fifteen years of his life.

From the time he left Transylvania, he experienced considerable difficulty in getting his numerous papers published Very many of them never would have been printed were it not that he promoted the establishment of tone or two literary and scientific periodicals. These literary ventures like most everything lese that he had touched during his lifetime was doomed to failure. During the last fifteen years of his life, his writings covered the widest possible range of subjects, testifying strongly to his inability to concentrate his mind and work. One of the most interesting facts connected with this latter portion of his career is his attempted application of is medical information to the treatment of tuberculosis. One of Rafinesque’s bibliographers made the following statement: -

“He was solemnly regarded as a “quack.” However, he was far from such a fact. There is the essential distinction, first of all, that Rafinesque really believed in his medicines and in his treatment. To me this is an entirely new definition of a “quack.”

For several years he made and advertised a medicine for the cure of tuberculosis to which he gave the name of “Pulmel,” concerning the virtues of which he wrote a book.  He published a number of statements of cures, reliefs, and similar matters.

One of his biographers further excuses his business ventures with “Pulmel” by saying in one sentence that he was absolutely sincere, and in the next that he was forced into these shady business ventures in order to secure funds for the publication of his books and to secure means of arranging his botanical material. He further says that it was not sordid gain that drove him to medical concoctions, but a sincere desire to get by fair means, in an honorable way, the opportunity to do good and be of service to mankind. Here is his own statement regarding his cure for tuberculosis:-

“Having cured myself completely in 1828 of my chronic complaint, which was fatat Phthsis, caused by my disappointments, fatigues and unsteady climate; which my knowledge in medical botany enabled me to subdue and effect a radical cure. I entered into arrangements for establishing a Chemical manufacture of vegetables remedies against the different kinds of Consumption. This succeeded well. I introduced also a new branch of medical knowledge and art. I became a Pulmist, who attended only to disease of the lungs, as a dentist attends only to the teeth, being thus the first pulmist, and perhaps the only one here or elsewhere. This new profession changed my business for a while; yet enabling me to travel again in search of plants or to spread my practice and to put my collections in better order, publishing many pamphlets.”

“In 1829, I gave a public proof of my art in printing a small book called ‘The Pulmist or the Art to Cure Consumption’ and hundreds of individuals, whom I have cured or relieved are another striking proof of the beneficial results of my new practice.”

Another one of his shady business ventures was called the Six Percent Savings Bank. This scheme was something akin to one of the later “get rich quick venture,” that we know of as the Ponzi Graft.

The closing scenes in the life of this man are of the saddest nature imaginable. He lived in the most abject poverty on Race Street, Philadelphia, I a garret, surrounded by his books; minerals, plants and other loved natural objects. He shunned the company of others and had no real and tried friends. The end came I 1840, when alone in his crowded garret in a poor quarter of the city, he died of cancer of the stomach. Even his most ardent admirers admit that during the last year of his life he was of unsound mind. Richard Call I his life of Rafinesque describe him thus:

“He was not, however, the irresponsible madman some would have us believe; rather, his was monomania, and took the direction of descriptions of new forms of animal and plant life, but more than this, his defect was that peculiar form of monomania which believed only in himself; which saw in his own work a value that does not always attack to it; which made him neglect the work of others, or, if it were noted, impelled him to caustic and unwise criticism.”

After his death, his body was locked in a room adjoining the one in which he died. His landlady refused permission of burial, because he hoped to find a market for his body in one of the medical schools, thus obtaining the rental Rafinesque owed him while living. Some of his acquaintances, however, bought his body from this landlord and buried it in the backyard and marked the grave with a wooden board.

Years later when it was learned at Transylvania University that plans were being made whereby the land were he was buried would be converted into a public par, a fund was raised to remove his remains to Transylvania College. This was done, and the remains cremated and furied in an urn, which finds resting place in that institution.

The will of Rafinesque in many ways an interesting document. I think some of the paragraphs will bear repeating.

1.                  I leave my immortal soul to the Creator and preserver of the Universe, the Supreme Ruler of Millions of worlds moving through space, to be sent to whatever world he may deem fit, according to his wise laws.

2.                  I wish my body if possible to be burnt rather that buried as I do not want to contaminate the Earth by decay, nor be a cause of disease to other men.

3.                  The secret of the Pulmet and other medicaments for consumption, I enjoin to my Executors not to divulge, but either to sell it or pass it under seal into the hands of my sister, to be by her used as her own, requesting her to give one fourth of the profits to my daughter, Emily.

4.                  I direct them also to sell all my secrets, relating to Aquatic Railways, Navigation of Shallow Waters, Steam Ploughs, Rail Wheels, Artificial Leather, Incombustible Architecture and every other Invention of mine, the proceeds being disposed of as above.

5.                  I forgive all my foes and those who have stole my property at various times, beginning with those who embezzled my father and uncle’s inheritance. But I direct my Executors to endeavor to collect all debts due me, of which a list will be fund with vouchers.

6.                  It is interesting to note that after the executors of the will had finished selling all the personal effects of the deceased, they were still $14.00 short of paying his debts.

Much of Rafinesque’s work was fundamental in its space. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame lies in his description of the natural history of the Ohio Valley. Here he found an exhaustless and virgin field. It is said that only the common food fishes were known at that time and these even did not possess a scientific name. Perhaps his two most valuable scientific contributions are “Fishes of the Ohio Valley” and “Monograph of the Shells of the Ohio Valley.”

His work on Botanical subjects of the Ohio Valley unquestionably has some scientific value. However, his descriptions were so hastily prepared and often the material so carelessly studied, that these are of ten valueless as a scientific writing. In all, he published 447 works in his lifetime. These included medical articles, books, pamphlets, and translations. Most of them were published in obscure journals and the published books were usually cheaply prepared.

I have a letter from Mrs. Norton, Liberians at the Transylvania College, in which she says, “As far as I have heard expression from those who have given attention to the history of Transylvania, Rafinesque’s name is considered the greatest ever connected with the University.”

Dr. Barkley, one of the foremost medical historians of the State says of him, “Rafinesque was one of the most brilliant men of his time.”

These statements are so out of harmony with my own impressions of the man form the reading of several biographies that it makes me wonder whether I have been unjust in the interpretation of the details of his life or whether Rafinesque’s claim of fame has not been overemphasized during the passing of over a hundred years.

It seems to me that the man suffered during most of his lifetime from a psychosis, which may be classified under the heading of ‘paranoia.’ I think his paranoia tendencies started in his early manhood, particularly at the time when he left Sicily and returned to America. Each new enterprise that he undertook seemed to bring out the deficiency in his mental reactions more and more. His constant dilutions of persecution were particularly noticeable.

His flight of ideas which carried him form scientific matters into most every realm of bizan metaphysical matters are quite characteristic. His delusions of grandeur as exemplified by his would be great inventions, ranging from Aquatic Railways, Steam ploughs, Artificial leather, incombustible architecture of financial schemes of the wildest nature, serve further to emphasize his unstable mental condition.

Various explanations have been offered in explanation of his eccentricities, one being his persistent misfortunes; another, the lack of appreciation of his work by men of his time.

One of the fundamental tests of a normal personality is the ability to meet reverses and overcome them. Of this quality Rafinesque was sadly lacking. The failure of one’s work to be accepted by his contemporaries is not an uncommon experience with men of science. In some instances it is a reflection upon the ability of the contemporaries, but in most instances it has been the fault of the man himself. In this particular instance, I can well see how the valuable part of Rafinesque’s contributions may have been buried in such a mass of worthless material that it required the sifting out process of time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It is often said that a man’s work is seldom appreciated during his lifetime. To me this statement is often lacking tin truth. If one would modify it by saying “the scope of a great man’s work is seldom appreciated during his lifetime,” then it would come nearer to being true. One’s virtues or faults are often magnified y the passing years. All alone needs to do to convince himself concerning the magnification of personal virtues is to sit through a public declamation celebrating a national holiday, or to attend county medical meeting and listen to the eulogies for members recently deceased. Think who embarrassed the poor subjects on one of these oratorical sprees would be could he but sneak in on the back row and hear these qualities which he nor no living human could hope to possess, extolled to the skies. I have a feeling, however, that could Rafinesque but returns and hears or read on of his own eulogies that he would be pleased!

If I could forget the unpleasant details of his life and only consider his accomplishments as a biologist, I could more easily reconciled into paying tribute to him as an historical character of considerable note.