Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

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Constantine Samuel Rafinesque
Rafinesque Constantine Samuel 1783-1840.png
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque
Born October 22, 1783
Galata, Constantinople, Ottoman Empire
Died September 18, 1840(1840-09-18) (aged 56)
Nationality France
Fields biologist
Author abbrev. (botany) Raf.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, as he is known in Europe (October 22, 1783 – September 18, 1840), was a nineteenth-century polymath born near Constantinople and self-educated in France. He traveled as a young man in the United States, ultimately settling there in 1815, where he made notable contributions to botany, zoology, and the study of prehistoric earthworks in North America. He also contributed to the study of ancient Mesoamerican linguistics, in addition to work he had already completed in Europe.

Rafinesque was eccentric, and is often portrayed as an "erratic genius".[1] He was an autodidact who excelled in various fields of knowledge, as a zoologist, botanist, writer and polyglot. He wrote prolifically on such diverse topics as anthropology, biology, geology, and linguistics, but was honored in none of these fields during his lifetime. Today, scholars agree that he was far ahead of his time in many areas.[2][3]


Rafinesque was born on October 22, 1783[4] in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople.[5][6] His father F. G. Rafinesque was a French merchant from Marseilles; his mother M. Schmaltz was of German descent and born in Constantinople.[5] His father died in Philadelphia about 1793.[7] Rafinesque spent his youth in Marseilles,[5] and was mostly self-educated, he never attended university.[8][9] By the age of twelve, he had begun collecting plants for a herbarium.[10] By fourteen, he taught himself perfect Greek and Latin because he needed to follow footnotes in the books he was reading in his grandmothers' libraries. In 1802, at the age of nineteen, Rafinesque sailed to Philadelphia in the United States with his younger brother. They traveled through Pennsylvania and Delaware,[6] where he made the acquaintance of most of the young nation's few botanists.[11]

In 1805 he returned to Europe with his collection of botanical specimens, and settled in Palermo, Sicily.[6][12] He became so successful in trade that he could retire by age twenty-five and devote his time entirely to natural history. For a time Rafinesque also worked as secretary to the American consul.[12] During his stay in Sicily, he studied plants and fishes,[4] naming many species of each.

Career in the United States[edit]

In 1815, after their son died, Rafinesque left his common-law wife and returned to the United States. When his ship Union foundered near the coast of Connecticut, he lost all his books (50 boxes) and all his specimens (including more than 60,000 shells).[13] Settling in New York, Rafinesque became a founding member of the newly established "Lyceum of Natural History."[14] In 1817 his book Florula Ludoviciana was strongly criticized by fellow botanists, which caused his writings to be ignored. 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 Rafinesque became professor of botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he also gave private lessons in French, Italian and Spanish.[15] He started recording all the new species of plants and animals he encountered in travels throughout the state. He was considered an erratic student of higher plants. In the spring of 1826, he left the university[16] after quarreling with its president.

Rafinesque traveled and lectured in various places, and endeavored to establish a magazine and a botanic garden, but without success. He moved to Philadelphia without employment. He published The Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, a Cyclopædic Journal and Review,[17] of which only eight numbers appeared (1832–1833). He also gave public lectures and continued publishing, mostly at his own expense.


Rafinesque died of stomach and liver cancer in Philadelphia on September 18, 1840.[18] It has been speculated that the cancer may have been induced by Rafinesque's self-medication years before with a mixture containing maidenhair fern.[19] He was buried in a plot in what is now Ronaldson's Cemetery.[18] In March 1924 what were thought to be his remains were transported to Transylvania University and reinterred in a tomb under a stone inscribed, "Honor to whom honor is overdue."[20][21]



Rafinesque published 6,700 binomial names of plants, many of which have priority over more familiar names.[22] The quantity of new taxa he produced, both plants and animals, has made Rafinesque memorable or even notorious among biologists.[23] The standard author abbreviation Raf. is used to indicate Rafinesque as the author when citing a botanical name.[24]

The Mule Deer is one of many species first named by Rafinesque.

Rafinesque applied to join the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but was twice turned down by Thomas Jefferson.[25] After studying the specimens collected by the expedition, he assigned scientific names to the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), the White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) and the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Walam Olum[edit]

In 1836 Rafinesque published his first volume of The American Nations. This included Walam Olum, a purported migration and creation narrative of the Lenape ("Delaware Indians"). It told of their migration to the lands around the Delaware River. Rafinesque claimed he had obtained wooden tablets engraved and painted with indigenous pictographs, together with a transcription in the Lenape language, from which he produced an English translation of the tablets' contents. Rafinesque claimed the original tablets and transcription were later lost, leaving his notes and transcribed copy as the only record of evidence.

For over a century after Rafinesque's publication, the Walam Olum was widely accepted by ethnohistorians as authentically Native American in origin. But, as early as 1849, when the document was republished by Ephraim G. Squier, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote to Squier saying that he believed the document might be fraudulent.[26] In the 1950s the Indiana Historical Society published a "re-translation" of the Walam Olum, as "a worthy subject for students of aboriginal culture".[27]

Later linguistic, ethnohistorical, archaeological and textual analyses, particularly from the 1980s and 1990s onward, suggested that the Walam Olum account was largely or entirely a fabrication, and described its record of authentic Lenape traditional migration stories as spurious.[28] After the publication in 1995 of David Oestreicher's thesis, The Anatomy of the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Anthropological Hoax, many scholars concurred with his analysis, and concluded that Rafinesque had been either the perpetrator, or perhaps the victim, of a hoax.[28] Other scholars, writers, and some among the Lenape continue to find the account plausible and support its authenticity.[28]

Study of prehistoric cultures[edit]

Examples of calculating the value of Mayan numerals

Rafinesque made a notable contribution to North American prehistory with his studies of ancient earthworks, especially in the Ohio Valley. He was the first to label these the "Ancient Monuments of America." He listed more than 500 such archaeological sites in Ohio and Kentucky.[29] Rafinesque never excavated;[30] rather, he recorded the sites visited by careful measurements, sketches, and written descriptions. Only a few of his descriptions found publication, but his work was used by others. For instance, he identified 148 sites in Kentucky. All sites in Kentucky which were included by E. G. Squier and Davis in their notable Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848), were originally identified by Rafinesque in his manuscripts.[31]

Rafinesque also made contributions to Mesoamerican studies. The latter were based on linguistic data which he extracted from printed sources, mostly those of travelers. He designated as Taino, the ancient language of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.[32] Others later also used the term to identify the ethnicity of indigenous Caribbean peoples.

Although mistaken in his presumption that the ancient Maya script was alphabetical in nature, Rafinesque was probably first to insist that studying modern Mayan languages could lead to deciphering the ancient script. In 1832 he was the first to partly decipher ancient Maya. He explained that its bar-and-dot symbols represent fives and ones, respectively.[33][34]

The genus Rafinesquia was named in Rafinesque's honor.


Thomas Nuttall named a new genus Rafinesquia after Rafinesque in 1841, feeling indebted to Rafinesque after he had given Nuttall's Flora a positive review.[35] It now contains two species, Rafinesquia californica Nutt. (California Plumeseed or California Chicory) and Rafinesquia neomexicana A. Gray (Desert Chicory or Plumeseed).[36]

In 1892 James Hall and J. M. Clarke proposed the genus name Rafinesquina in honor of Rafinesque for a number of fossil brachiopod species[37] then belonging to genus Leptaena; the genus is now in the family Rafinesquinidae.

Notable publications[edit]

Atlantic Journal (1832–1833)



  1. ^ Flannery 1998
  2. ^ Long 2005
  3. ^ Gilbert 1999
  4. ^ a b Belyi 1997
  5. ^ a b c Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 11
  6. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  7. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 12
  8. ^ Discovering Lewis & Clark: biography of Rafinesque; accessed : November 17, 2010
  9. ^ "The oddest of characters", American Heritage, April 1985; accessed November 17, 2010.
  10. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 13
  11. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, pp. 15–17
  12. ^ a b Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 19
  13. ^ Rafinesque, C. S. (1836). Life of Travels. pp. 46–49.  Cited in Fitzpatrick 1911, pp. 21–22.
  14. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, pp. 22–24
  15. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, pp. 27–28
  16. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 34
  17. ^ Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 38
  18. ^ a b Fitzpatrick 1911, p. 42
  19. ^ Ambrose 2010
  20. ^ Boewe 1987
  21. ^ Barefoot 2004, p. 78
  22. ^ Boewe 2005, p. 1
  23. ^ Boewe 2005, p. 2
  24. ^ "Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel (1783–1840)". Author Details. International Plant Names Index. Retrieved May 18, 2011. 
  25. ^ Warren 2004, p. 98
  26. ^ Jackson & Rose 2009
  27. ^ Walam Olum: or, Red Score, The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians. See Voegelin 1954
  28. ^ a b c Oestreicher 2005
  29. ^ Warren 2004, p. 91
  30. ^ Boewe 2000, p. xxiii
  31. ^ Boewe 2000, p. xxv
  32. ^ Hulme 1993
  33. ^ Houston, Stuart & Chinchilla Mazariegos 2001, p. 45
  34. ^ Chaddha 2008
  35. ^ Beidleman 2006, p. 139
  36. ^ Morhardt & Morhardt 2004, p. 71
  37. ^ Meyer & Davis 2009, p. 272


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]