Constantine Samuel Rafinesque

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Constantine Samuel Rafinesque
Rafinesque Constantine Samuel 1783-1840.png
Born(1783-10-22)22 October 1783
Died18 September 1840(1840-09-18) (aged 56)
Scientific career
Fields biologist
Author abbrev. (botany) Raf.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, as he is known in Europe (22 October 1783 – 18 September 1840), was a nineteenth-century polymath born near Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire and self-educated in France. He traveled as a young man in the United States, ultimately settling in Ohio 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.

Polymath Individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects

A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term entered the lexicon in the 20th century and has now been applied to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance.

Constantinople capital city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Latin and the Ottoman Empire

Constantinople was the capital city of the Roman Empire (330–395), of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, of the brief Crusader state known as the Latin Empire (1204–1261) and of the Ottoman Empire (1453–1923). In 1923 the capital of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, was moved to Ankara and the name Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul. The city is located in what is now the European side and the core of modern Istanbul. The city is still referred to as Constantinople in Greek-speaking sources.

Ottoman Empire Former empire in Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa

The Ottoman Empire, historically known to its inhabitants and the Eastern world as Rome (Rûm), and known in Western Europe as the Turkish Empire or simply Turkey, was a state that controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. It was founded at the end of the 13th century in northwestern Anatolia in the town of Söğüt by the Oghuz Turkish tribal leader Osman I. Although initially the dynasty was of Turkic origin, it was thoroughly Persianised in terms of language, culture, literature and habits. After 1354, the Ottomans crossed into Europe, and with the conquest of the Balkans, the Ottoman beylik was transformed into a transcontinental empire. The Ottomans ended the Byzantine Empire with the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.


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. Among his theories were that ancestors of Native Americans had migrated by the Bering Sea from Asia to North America, [2] [3] and that the Americas were populated by numerous black indigenous peoples at the time of European contact. [4]

Eccentricity (behavior) unusual or odd behavior on the part of an individual

Eccentricity is unusual or odd behavior on the part of an individual. This behavior would typically be perceived as unusual or unnecessary, without being demonstrably maladaptive. Eccentricity is contrasted with normal behavior, the nearly universal means by which individuals in society solve given problems and pursue certain priorities in everyday life. People who consistently display benignly eccentric behavior are labeled as "eccentrics".

Anthropology The science of human behavior and societies

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology studies patterns of behaviour and cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.

Biology is the natural science that studies life and living organisms, including their physical structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution. Despite the complexity of the science, there are certain unifying concepts that consolidate it into a single, coherent field. Biology recognizes the cell as the basic unit of life, genes as the basic unit of heredity, and evolution as the engine that propels the creation and extinction of species. Living organisms are open systems that survive by transforming energy and decreasing their local entropy to maintain a stable and vital condition defined as homeostasis.


Rafinesque was born on October 22, 1783 [5] in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople. [6] [7] His father F. G. Rafinesque was a French merchant from Marseilles; his mother M. Schmaltz was of German descent and born in Constantinople. [6] His father died in Philadelphia about 1793. [8] Rafinesque spent his youth in Marseilles, [6] and was mostly self-educated; he never attended university. [9] [10] By the age of twelve, he had begun collecting plants for a herbarium. [11] By fourteen, he taught himself Greek and Latin because he needed to follow footnotes in the books he was reading in his paternal grandmother's 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, [7] where he made the acquaintance of most of the young nation's few botanists. [12]

Galata neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, often referred to as Pera in the past

Galata was a neighbourhood opposite Constantinople, located at the northern shore of the Golden Horn, the inlet which separates it from the historic peninsula of old Constantinople. The Golden Horn is crossed by several bridges, most notably the Galata Bridge. The medieval citadel of Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa between 1273 and 1453. The famous Galata Tower was built by the Genoese in 1348 at the northernmost and highest point of the citadel. At present, Galata is a quarter within the borough of Beyoğlu (Pera) in Istanbul, and is known as Karaköy.

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2018 census-estimated population of 1,584,138. Since 1854, the city has had the same geographic boundaries as Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

Herbarium scientific collection of dried plants

A herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study.

In 1805 Rafinesque returned to Europe with his collection of botanical specimens, and settled in Palermo, Sicily, where he learned Italian. [7] [13] He became so successful in trade that he retired by age twenty-five and devoted his time entirely to natural history. For a time Rafinesque also worked as secretary to the American consul. [13] During his stay in Sicily, he studied plants and fishes, [5] naming many new discovered species of each. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1808. [14]

Palermo Comune in Sicily, Italy

Palermo is a city of Southern Italy, the capital of both the autonomous region of Sicily and the Metropolitan City of Palermo. The city is noted for its history, culture, architecture and gastronomy, playing an important role throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old. Palermo is located in the northwest of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences United States honorary society and center for independent policy research

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Founded in 1780, the Academy is dedicated to honoring excellence and leadership, working across disciplines and divides, and advancing the common good.

Career in the United States

Rafinesque had a common-law wife. After their son died in 1815, he left her 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). [15] Settling in New York, Rafinesque became a founding member of the newly established "Lyceum of Natural History." [16] In 1817 his book Florula Ludoviciana  [ es ] or A Flora of the State of Louisiana 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.

Common-law marriage, also known as sui iuris marriage, informal marriage, marriage by habit and repute, or marriage in fact, is a legal framework in a limited number of jurisdictions where a couple is legally considered married, without that couple having formally registered their relation as a civil or religious marriage.

Mollusc shell exoskeleton of an animal in the phylum Mollusca

The molluscshell is typically a calcareous exoskeleton which encloses, supports and protects the soft parts of an animal in the phylum Mollusca, which includes snails, clams, tusk shells, and several other classes. Not all shelled molluscs live in the sea; many live on the land and in freshwater.

In the summer of 1818, in Henderson, Kentucky, Rafinesque made the acquaintance of fellow naturalist John James Audubon, and in fact stayed in Audubon's home for some three weeks. Audubon, although enjoying Rafinesque's company, took advantage of him in practical jokes involving fantastic, made-up species. [17]

Henderson, Kentucky City in Kentucky, United States

Henderson is a home rule-class city along the Ohio River in Henderson County in western Kentucky in the United States. The population was 28,757 at the 2010 U.S. census. It is part of the Evansville Metropolitan Area, locally known as the "Tri-State Area". It is considered the southernmost suburb of Evansville, Indiana and its population area of the Evansville metropolitan area was 58,702 as of 2018, making it the twelfth largest city, in the state the ninth most populous metro area in the state and, the fourteenth largest population center in the state when including micropolitan areas.

John James Audubon American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter

John James Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. He was notable for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. Audubon identified 25 new species.

In 1819 Rafinesque became professor of botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he also gave private lessons in French, Italian and Spanish. [18] He was loosely associated with John D. Clifford, a merchant who was also interested in the ancient earthworks which remained throughout the Ohio Valley. Clifford conducted archival research, seeking the origins of these mounds, and Rafinesque measured and mapped them. Some had already been lost to American development.

He was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1820. [19]

Rafinesque 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 [20] after quarreling with its president.

He traveled and lectured in various places, and endeavored to establish a magazine and a botanic garden, but without success. He moved to Philadelphia, a center of publishing and research, without employment. He published The Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, a Cyclopædic Journal and Review, [21] of which only eight issues were printed (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. [22] It has been speculated that the cancer may have been induced by Rafinesque's self-medication years before with a mixture containing maidenhair fern. [23] He was buried in a plot in what is now Ronaldson's Cemetery. [22] 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." [24] [25]



Rafinesque published 6,700 binomial names of plants, many of which have priority over more familiar names. [26] The quantity of new taxa he produced, both plants and animals, has made Rafinesque memorable or even notorious among biologists., [27] [28]

The Mule Deer is one of many species first named by Rafinesque. Mule Deer at Clearwater Pass 2.jpg
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. [29] 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).


Rafinesque was one of the first to use the term "evolution" in the context of biological speciation. [30]

Rafinesque proposed a theory of evolution before Charles Darwin. [31] [32] In a letter in 1832, Rafinesque wrote:

The truth is that Species and perhaps Genera also, are forming in organized beings by gradual deviations of shapes, forms and organs, taking place in the lapse of time. There is a tendency to deviations and mutations through plants and animals by gradual steps at remote irregular periods. This is a part of the great universal law of perpetual mutability in everything. Thus it is needless to dispute and differ about new genera, species and varieties. Every variety is a deviation which becomes a species as soon as it is permanent by reproduction. Deviations in essential organs may thus gradually become new genera. [33]

In the third edition of On the Origin of Species published in 1861, Charles Darwin added a Historical Sketch that acknowledged the ideas of Rafinesque. [34] [35]

Rafinesque's evolutionary theory appears in a two-page article in the 1833 spring issue of the Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge (a journal founded by himself). Rafinesque held that species are not fixed, they gradually change through time. He used the term "mutations". He also held the view that evolution had occurred "by gradual steps at remote irregular periods." This has been compared to the concept of punctuated equilibrium. [36]

Walam Olum

In 1836 Rafinesque published his first volume of The American Nations. This included Walam Olum , a purported migration and creation narrative of the Lenape (also known by English speakers as the 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. Based on this, 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, an ethnologist who had worked extensively in Michigan and related territories, wrote to Squier saying that he believed the document might be fraudulent. [37] In the 1950s the Indiana Historical Society published a "re-translation" of the Walam Olum, as "a worthy subject for students of aboriginal culture". [38]

Since the late 20th century, studies especially since the 1980s in linguistic, ethnohistorical, archaeological and textual analyses, suggest that the Walam Olum account was largely or entirely a fabrication. Scholars have described its record of "authentic Lenape traditional migration stories" as spurious. [39] 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. They concluded that Rafinesque had been either the perpetrator, or perhaps the victim, of a hoax. [39] Other scholars, writers, and some among the Lenape continue to find the account plausible and support its authenticity. [39]

Study of prehistoric cultures

Examples of calculating the value of Mayan numerals Examples of how to calculate the value of Mayan numerals.gif
Examples of calculating the value of Mayan numerals

Rafinesque made a notable contribution to North American prehistory with his studies of ancient earthworks of the Adena and Hopewell cultures, especially in the Ohio Valley. He was the first to identify these as the "Ancient Monuments of America." He listed more than 500 such archaeological sites in Ohio and Kentucky. [40] Rafinesque never excavated; [41] rather, he recorded the sites visited by careful measurements, sketches, and written descriptions. Only a few of his descriptions were published, with his friend John D. Clifford's series "Indian Antiquities," eight long letters in Lexington's short-lived Western Review and Miscellaneous Magazine (1819-1820). [42] Clifford died suddenly in 1820, ending his contributions.

Rafinesque's work was used by others. For instance, he identified 148 ancient earthworks 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), completed for the Smithsonian Institution, were first identified by Rafinesque in his manuscripts. [43]

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. [44] 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. [45] [46] [47]

The genus Rafinesquia was named in Rafinesque's honor. Rafinesquia neomexicana capitulum 2005-04-01.jpg
The genus Rafinesquia was named in Rafinesque's honor.


Notable publications

Atlantic Journal (1832-1833) Rafinesque.AtlanticJournal.1832-1833..jpg
Atlantic Journal (1832–1833)

John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist, which appears in his 2011 collection, Pulphead , chronicles the life and times of Rafinesque.


See also

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  1. Flannery 1998
  2. Long 2005
  3. Gilbert 1999
  4. Rafinesque 1833, p. 85.
  5. 1 2 Belyi 1997
  6. 1 2 3 Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 11
  7. 1 2 3 Wikisource-logo.svg  Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Rafinesque, Constantine Samuel"  . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography . New York: D. Appleton.
  8. Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 12
  9. Discovering Lewis & Clark: biography of Rafinesque; accessed : November 17, 2010
  10. "The oddest of characters" Archived January 8, 2009, at the Wayback Machine , American Heritage, April 1985; accessed November 17, 2010.
  11. Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 13
  12. Fitzpatrick 1911 , pp. 15–17
  13. 1 2 Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 19
  14. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter R" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  15. Rafinesque, C. S. (1836). Life of Travels. pp. 46–49. Cited in Fitzpatrick 1911 , pp. 21–22.
  16. Fitzpatrick 1911 , pp. 22–24
  17. Rhodes 2004, pp. 133-135.
  18. Fitzpatrick 1911 , pp. 27–28
  19. "MemberListR". Retrieved September 17, 2017.
  20. Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 34
  21. Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 38
  22. 1 2 Fitzpatrick 1911 , p. 42
  23. Ambrose 2010b
  24. Boewe 1987
  25. Barefoot 2004 , p. 78
  26. Boewe 2005 , p. 1
  27. Boewe 2005 , p. 2
  28. Payne, Ansel. "Why Do Taxonomists Write the Meanest Obituaries?". Nautilus. Retrieved September 17, 2017.
  29. Warren 2004 , p. 98
  30. Örstan 2014.
  31. Weslager 1989, p. 85.
  32. Rothenberg 2012, p. 466.
  33. Warren 2004, p. 31.
  34. Darwin 1861, p. xv.
  35. Ambrose 2010a.
  36. Chambers 1992.
  37. Jackson & Rose 2009
  38. Walam Olum: or, Red Score, The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians. See Voegelin 1954
  39. 1 2 3 Oestreicher 2005
  40. Warren 2004 , p. 91
  41. Boewe 2000 , p. xxiii
  42. Clifford & Rafinesque 2000.
  43. Boewe 2000 , p. xxv
  44. Hulme 1993
  45. Rafinesque 1832, pp.  42:"This page of Demotic has letters and numbers, these represented by strokes meaning 5 and dots meaning unities as the dots never exceed 4."
  46. Houston, Stuart & Chinchilla Mazariegos 2001 , p. 45
  47. Chaddha 2008
  48. Beidleman 2006 , p. 139
  49. Morhardt & Morhardt 2004 , p. 71
  50. Meyer & Davis 2009 , p. 272


Further reading