Rafinesque, C.S. (Constantine Samuel), 1783-1840

Alternative names
Birth 1783-10-22
Death 1840-09-18

Biographical notes:

Charles Lucian Bonaparte was a naturalist and ornithologist.

From the guide to the Correspondence, 1824-1855, from American scientists, 1824-1855, (American Philosophical Society)


From the description of Letter of C. S. Rafinesque, 1826. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 79449937

From the description of Letter : Lexington, Ky., to Thomas Leaming, Philadelphia, 1821 Apr. 12. (Bryn Mawr College). WorldCat record id: 29458820

C. S. Rafinesque was a naturalist.

From the description of Miscellaneous manuscripts, 1817-1834. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122364938

From the description of Ancient monuments of North and South America, 1822-1825. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 86165463

From the description of Correspondence and writings, 1808-1840. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122589363

From the description of Correspondence, 1809-1840, with William Swainson. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122489519

From the description of Correspondence, 1819-1840, to John Torrey. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122644699

From the guide to the C. S. (Constantine Samuel ) Rafinesque correspondence, 1809-1840, with William Swainson, 1809-1840, (American Philosophical Society)

From the guide to the Ancient monuments of North and South America, 1822-1825, 1822-1825, (American Philosophical Society)

From the guide to the C. S., (Constantine Samuel ) Rafinesque correspondence, 1819-1840, to John Torrey, 1819-1840, (American Philosophical Society)

From the guide to the C. S. (Constantine Samuel ) Rafinesque miscellaneous manuscripts, 1817-1834, 1817-1834, (American Philosophical Society)

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) was born near Constantinople. In 1792, he moved with his family to Leghorn, Italy, where he was educated by private tutors. Rafinesque showed an early enthusiasm for the study of nature, beginning the systematic collection of a herbarium when he was eleven years old. In 1802, he traveled to Philadelphia, where he became acquainted with several American scientists, including Benjamin Rush and William Bartram. During his three years in America, Rafinesque made several field trips, collecting botanical and zoological specimens. He returned to Italy in 1805 and for the next ten years resided in Sicily. While studying the ichthyology of Sicilian waters, Rafinesque worked as secretary and chancellor to the American Consul and as an exporter of squills and medicinal plants. A series of personal problems caused him to return to America in 1815. Surviving a shipwreck off Long Island, he settled in New York where he worked at times as a private tutor. From 1815 to 1818, he studied the flora and fauna of the Hudson Valley, Lake George, and Long Island. In 1819, Rafinesque was appointed Professor of Botany, Natural History, and Modern Languages at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he remained until 1826. From 1826 until his death, he lived in Philadelphia and continued to make field trips and study the flora and fauna of the region. Rafinesque's chief interests were botany and ichthyology. Despite a peculiar personality that alienated many colleagues, he contributed significantly to nineteenth century scientific thought. He was one of the first American naturalists to depart from the Linnaean system of classification and adopt the emerging schemes of natural plant classification. Rafinesque was an early advocate of evolutionary theory and his ideas were acknowledged by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species.

Smithsonian Institution Archives Field Book Project: Person : Description : rid_21_pid_EACP20

Historian and naturalist.

From the description of Memorandum books, 1827. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71071043


Born near Constantinople in 1783, Rafinesque traveled widely pursuing his studies in natural history. He was appointed professor of botany, natural history and modern languages at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in 1818 and remained there until 1826. He published not only on botany and ichthyology, but also banking, economics the Bible and other topics.

From the description of Elkhorn Creek (Ky.) Indian mound maps, 1820. (University of Kentucky Libraries). WorldCat record id: 15804322

Biographical note: Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was born in Constantinople in 1783, and he moved with his family to France a year later. Following a trip to America (1802-1805), he spent ten years in Sicily, where he studied natural history under British ichthyologist, William Swainson, before returning to the United States. In 1818 Rafinesque traveled to Lexington, Kentucky where he visited his friend John D. Clifford, through whom Rafinesque received an 1819 appointment at Transylvania University as lecturer on botany and natural sciences.

Rafinesque remained at Transylvania until 1826 and was engaged during this period in numerous field studies throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. In addition to lecturing at Transylvania, he published numerous papers on natural science topics; began publication of a journal, WESTERN MINERVA; and was active in the establishment of a short-lived botanical garden through the Transylvania Botanic Garden Company, whose founding members included Horace Holley, Benjamin W. Dudley, and Henry Clay. In 1825 Rafinesque left Lexington for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he spent the rest of his life.

From the description of Papers, 1819-1825. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 191917679

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz (1783-1840) was a self-educated naturalist, archaeologist, linguist and entrepreneur. Although scorned or ignored by many contemporaries, his adoption of “natural” botanical classifications consistent with the theory of organic evolution was in advance of his time. He was a founding member of the New York Lyceum of Natural History. A linguist and archaeologist of Mesoamerica, he made important archaeological investigations of ancient native American earthworks in Ohio and Kentucky and made some of the first investigations of ancient Mayan script. In volume 1 of his two-volume work American Nations Rafinesque claimed to have discovered an account of Lenni Lenape origins. The Walam Olum, considered authentic by many ethnohistorians at the time, was exposed as a fabrication in the late twentieth century. Rafinesque’s most financially successful work was the Medical Flora, a Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of North America (1828-30).

Rafinesque was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople. He was the son of a French merchant Georges F. Rafubesque, originally from Marseilles and Madeleine Schmaltz, a native Greek woman of German extraction. The family returned to Marseilles, but after his father’s death in 1793, his mother fled with her three children from the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror to Leghorn, Italy, where they lived until 1796. After this he lived successively in Pisa, Genoa and Marseilles until 1800. Rafinesque had little education, except from private tutors. But, by the age twelve, he could read botanical Latin and began collecting plants for a herbarium.

In 1802 at the age of nineteen Rafinesque began an apprenticeship with the Clifford brothers, who were merchants in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia he met physician Benjamin Rush (1745-1813, APS 1768) (whose student he declined to become), the horticulturalist Thomas Forrest, and naturalists Moses Marshall and William Bartram (1739-1823, APS 1768). Over the next two and a half years the young man roamed the country-side collecting specimens of flora and fauna. He also collected reptiles for François Daudin’s Natural History of Reptiles (1802-03). In November 1804 Rafinesque wrote to Jefferson to inquire why no botanist was included on the Dunbar expedition to the Red River Valley expedition. However, he left for Italy before the President could respond, offering him the position.

Between 1805 and 1815 Rafinesque lived in Sicily, for three years serving as secretary to the American Consul in Palermo. He made a fortune in a part-time business enterprise, selling medical squills for export. Having become financially secure, he retired at age 25, hoping to devote his life to the pursuit of natural history. Rafinesque considered the ten years he spent in Sicily, the best years of his life. He married Josephine Vaccaro, who bore him two children, but his protestant faith prevented the union from being recognized. In 1810 he published his first book, Caratteri di alcuni nuovi generi e nuove specie di animali e piante della Sicilia, which set the mold for many of his subsequent works, namely a classification and description of new species of plants and animals. During 1814 he edited and published a monthly scientific journal called the Specchio delle scienze (Mirror of Science), reputed to be the first in Sicily. In order to become better known on the Continent as a naturalist, in 1815 he published an Analyse de la nature, which was modeled upon Linnaeus’s Systema naturae, but written in French, the language he thought would soon become the medium of science. An unsuccessful bid for the chair of botany at the University of Palermo that year led Rafinesque to return to the United States in 1815.

Rafinesque’s return voyage to America ended in a shipwreck off the Long Island coast in which he lost “everything”-his books, manuscripts and drawings. Later, ashore in New York he was befriended by Samuel Latham Mitchill the physician, naturalist and politician, who introduced him to other naturalists. Two years later in 1817 Rafinesque was one of the founding members of New York’s Lyceum of Natural History. Also, that year he published his controversial Florula Ludoviciana, that introduced a “natural” system of botanical classification based upon the models of French naturalists Michel Adanson and Antoine de Jussieu, who grouped plants on the basis of perceived morphological relationships instead of the “artifical” Linnaean system then prevalent in America. He was also criticized for naming and classifying plants in the volume that he had never seen, relying on a published account of the French botanical writer C.C. Robin.

In the spring of 1818 Rafinesque mounted a major collecting trip down the Ohio River to describe all of its fish, resulting in the publication of Ichthyologia Ohiensis. Although this was the first such attempt at a description of Ohio River fish, the manuscript, as well as a series of papers on Ohio mollusks was spurned by Silliman’s American Journal of Science and Arts. Rafinesque also ran into trouble with the referees of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences for submitting a paper, whose substance he had published elsewhere. As a result of these negative experiences, he increasingly turned to self-publications. Despite these setbacks, he made another important 2,000 mile tour to collect botanical specimens beyond the Alleghenies as far west as Kentucky and Illinois. By 1818, he had collected and named more than 250 new species of plants and animals.

In 1819 Rafinesque accepted a professorship in botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where an old Philadelphia merchant friend John D. Clifford was a trustee. Despite a stormy seven-year tenure, Rafinesque was awarded an honorary Master of Arts by Transylvania in 1822, and shortly thereafter received an honorary doctorate from the Imperial Academy of Bonn (Germany). Leaving the university in 1826, Rafinesque returned to Philadelphia with forty crates of specimens and books, that served his research needs for the remainder of his life.

While in Kentucky Rafinesque began research on the indigeneous peoples of the Americas. In an 1822 publication he made the first attempt at deciphering Mayan ideographs, suggesting that they were partly syllabic. He also investigated the prehistoric earthen mounds of the Ohio Valley and attempted to trace the movement of native American tribes by comparative studies of their languages. The most important publication to result from this research was the two-volume American Nations that appeared in 1836. An especially important section of the work was Rafinesque’s account of the origins of the Lenape (Delaware) Indians, who migrated to the lands around the Delaware River. He claimed that the account, known as the Walam Olum, was based on pictographs engraved and painted onto wooden sticks or plates together with a transcription of the Lenape language. These original tablets and the transcription were later lost, according to Rafinesques, leaving only his notes and a copy of the transcription. Although always controversial, many scholars considered the Walam Olum an authentic Native American account for well over a century after its “discovery”. Subsequent linguistic, ethnohistorical and archaeological analysis in the 1980’s and 1990’s tended to suggest it was a fabrication, an assessment that was confirmed by the 1995 thesis of David Oestreicher, The Anatomy of the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Anthropological Hoax.

Back in Philadelphia, Rafinesque once again edited a scientific quarterly journal; this one entitled the Atlantic Journal (1832-33). In 1832 he became a naturalized United States citizen, and also organized a small savings bank. Interspersed among the scientific publications of these final years of his life, were a number humanistic writings. One of these was a lengthy poem on mutability, entitled The World (1836). This was followed two years later by a linguistic analysis of the Genius and Spirit of the Hebrew Bible (1838). His most financially rewarding publication was the Medical Flora, a Manual of the Medical Botany of the United States of America (1828-30), but his other notable botanical works from this period include New Flora and Botany of North America (1836-38), Flora telluriana (1837-38), Sylva telluriana (1838) and Autikon botanikon (1840).

Although not wealthy, Rafinesque was comfortably established in Philadelphia at the end of his life. Despite receiving the best medical care the times could afford, he died of stomach cancer on September 18, 1840. His lifeswork was totally ignored by most of his contemporaries; nevertheless, most agreed with the sentiments expressed by botanist L.D. Schweintz, who wrote that “he is doubtless a man of immense knowledge-as badly digested as may be & crack-brained I am sure.” In his works, he proposed hundreds of new genera and thousands of new species, but his reputation would not be rehabilitated until the mid-twentieth century, when botanists acknowledged that the 6,700 Latin plant names he assigned were validated according to rules since adopted by botanists themselves. In 1924, Rafinesque’s remains were moved to Transylvania University. Unfortunately, many of his papers were damaged or destroyed after his death.

From the guide to the C. S. (Constantine Samuel) Rafinesque correspondence and writings, 1808-1840, 1808-1840, (American Philosophical Society)

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) was a naturalist who is best known for his contributions to scientific classification and nomenclature and giving Latin names to approximately 6,700 plants.

Rafinesque was born in Galata, near Constantinople on October 22, 1783, the son of Francois G. A. and Madeleine Rafinesque. Much troubled by the turmoil in France in the late 1700s and early 1800s, his father moved frequently, from France, to Italy and to Philadelphia, where he died of yellow fever in 1793. Rafinesque was educated in Italy, but was largely self-taught.

In 1802, Rafinesque arrived in Philadelphia for an apprenticeship with the mercantile house of the Clifford Brothers. However, he was fascinated by the plants and wildlife he saw on the North American continent and in 1804, he left his work with Clifford Brothers and "made extended botanical tours into Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia," (p. 368).

He returned to Italy, circa 1805, where he served as secretary to the United States Consul, and at the same time, collected specimens, studied botany, and wrote extensively. He lived there for ten years before returning to the United States in 1815. During his 1815 voyage, he was shipwrecked near Long Island and his collection of specimens, sketches, and unpublished manuscripts were lost. Upon his arrival in North America, he traveled throughout the United States, particularly along the Ohio River and in Kentucky. In 1819, Rafinesque took the position as professor of botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. While at Transylvania University, he was "often troubled by quarrels with colleagues, [but his years there] were among his most productive," (University of Evansville).

In 1826, he returned to Philadelphia, where "he traded in specimens and books; he gave public lectures; he organized a workingmen's bank; he invented and marketed a nostrum for tuberculosis," (University of Evansville), in addition to writing and publishing more than 200 works. At the time of his death, in Philadelphia in 1840, he had named approximately 6,700 plants.


University of Evansville. "Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) naturalist," http://faculty.evansville.edu/ck6/bstud/rafin.htm (accessed November 28, 2011).

From the guide to the Constantine Samuel Rafinesque papers, 1818-1977, (Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia)


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