Who is C.S. Rafinesque?

One of my herbal heroes is Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmalz (1783-1840), a groundbreaking French-American naturalist and the first pioneer of American Eclectic herbal medicine. Rafinesque (or CSR, as he often signed his publications) is legendary in both zoology and botany, having described and named more new species than any other single individual in history. One of the many species that Rafinesque described and named, the western mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), likes to hang out on my front lawn several times a week—maybe that’s why Rafinesque feels so familiar to me. 

Rafinesque was born near Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, on October 22, 1783. His father was a French merchant from Marseilles. His mother was from a German merchant family but was born in Constantinople. Shortly after his birth, his parents moved to Marseilles, where he grew up speaking French (French was the language of commerce throughout the Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean). During the turmoil of the French Revolution (1789-99), he was sent to live with his father’s relatives in Livorno (or Leghorn), Pisa, and Genoa, all in Tuscany, where he would have learned some Italian too. By 1793, France was at war with Britain, and while his father was on a merchant voyage to Mauritania and China, his father’s ship fell among British warships and only escaped by fleeing to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the ship and cargo were sold, and he died of yellow fever contracted in China. 

His father’s death at age 10 took the family into hard financial times. Europe was in turmoil, and the University education he hoped for was not to be. Rafinesque worked as an itinerant trader like his father, and spent his spare time as a naturalist and reading voraciously—by age 12 he had collected many plant specimens in his own herbarium; by age 14 he had taught himself Greek and Latin so he could follow the footnotes in his grandmother’s libraries. He was also corresponding with François Daudin, a noted Paris naturalist, and sketching and describing all the plants, animals, and birds he could find near his ports of call in Marseilles and Tuscany. 

In 1802, at the age of eighteen, he sailed to America with his younger brother, where he apprenticed to the Clifford Brothers, a merchant firm in Philadelphia. One member of the firm, John D. Clifford, became a lifelong friend and mentor. When yellow fever threatened Philadelphia, Rafinesque left town to work with a noted horticulturist and visited several gardens, always drawing, preserving, and cataloging the species he saw. Rafinesque spent the next two years hiking the woods and fields from Pennsylvania to Virginia, making copious notes, collecting samples, meeting most of the young botanists and naturalists in the country, and corresponding with naturalists in many other places. He met George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and many others. He briefly considered joining the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806), but instead accepted a lucrative position as secretary to the American consul in Palermo, Sicily. He took passage on New Year's Day, 1805, cutting through the ice, and arrived in Palermo in May, after 40 days of being quarantined in Livorno and another 20 days in Palermo for fear of yellow fever. Rafinesque spent the time in quarantine writing his travels, organizing his herbal collection of 2400 species and 10,000 samples, corresponding with noted naturalists, and sending them samples of American plants, for which he received Italian specimens in exchange.

Rafinesque spent the next 10 years in Palermo, where in addition to his official salary, which he saved, he did a brisk trade in squills (coastal lily bulbs) and other herbal medicines. In 1808, by the age of 25, he had retired from commerce, devoted his full time to his work as a naturalist, and been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From the frontispiece of his book Analyses de La Nature (Palermo, 1815), we get the only picture of him that we can assume is genuine. 

He also met and had two children with a Sicilian woman, Josephine Vacarro, but could not marry her under Sicilian law because he was a Protestant and she a Catholic. When their son died in 1815, his common-law marriage seems to have ended too, because he departed Sicily alone in 1815, never to return. His later description of Sicily was full of untold betrayal:

“Few learned travellers [sic] can boast to have so long studied nature in that lovely spot. It was the best epoch of my life. The events of those years might afford materials for a romance.

“Sicily might be described in a few words by saying she offers … a fruitful soil, delightful climate, excellent [agricultural] productions, perfidious men, deceitful women … such is the outline of her picture.” (Rafinesque, Life of Travels, p. 27) 

Rafinesque set sail from Palermo in July 1815, bound for New York, with 50 cases of books and over 60,000 specimens. The passage was slow and stormy, and in November of 1815, the ship foundered off the coast of Connecticut. Rafinesque lost everything. The crew barely managed to free the longboats, and rowed to the New London lighthouse at midnight in a storm. This was the unfortunate beginning of the rest of his life spent in the United States. This disaster may have spurred him even harder to redouble his efforts and rebuild his collections. 

At the time, most botanists were still learning and using the plant family classifications proposed by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in his Systema Naturae, or “Natural System” first published in 1735. Linnaeus invented the two-part Latin naming system that is still used to identify genera and species in zoology and botany today, but the actual family classifications (genera) that Linnaeus proposed didn’t fare as well, and some of his assumptions were clearly wrong. For example, his Species Plantarum (1753) listed 5940 species, and he expected the full list would be less than 10,000 species. He did not expect any single genera to include more than 100 species. Since this was before Darwin, he also assumed that species were static and did not change over time. 

Reality proved a bit different—today there are over 400,000 species of flowering plants alone, and the artificial divisions proposed by Linnaeus (based on numbers of stamens and pistils) had to be completely reworked to fit the natural divisions of the plants they were supposed to describe. Much of this occurred through the work of French botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836), whose Genera plantarum (1789) largely rebuilt Linnaeus’ system of plant families around more natural types and characteristics, and is today widely accepted and used. 

In America, Rafinesque was at the forefront of this Jussieu revolution, which brought him under much criticism from established botanists still using Linnaeus’ methods. He was also criticized for assuming that some species were “new” when others thought (often wrongly) that they had been previously described under another name, or in another place. Critics thought these traits represented a lack of respect for other scientists and the established order—but in a world with few libraries and no easy way to access prior research, especially when in the field, I think we can give him the benefit of the doubt. By the time of his death, Rafinesque had described and named more than 6700 botanical species—more than any other botanist, ever. As a scientist, Rafinesque preferred to study and catalog plants and animals, rather than waste time answering his many critics. Without a defender or defense, many of his manuscripts were routinely rejected by mainstream publishing houses, primarily because his ideas were ahead of their time.

Rafinesque spent the first winter back in the United States as a tutor in upstate New York. Teaching was an ideal job for him, offering long vacations in the summer for travels and collecting samples, and a place to store, organize, and write about his specimens in the winter months. His new specimens followed him in wagons as he traveled, while his prior collections stayed behind until he returned. He usually preferred to travel on foot, writing that:

Horses were offered to me; but I never liked riding them, and dismounting for every flower: horses do not suit botanists. (id. p. 61)

In the spring of 1816, he returned to his roamings, rebuilding his collections with specimens from New York to Vermont, and Long Island to New Jersey. Bad luck, a weak economy, lack of university diplomas, and (perhaps) a prickly personality continued to deny him the recognition he sought. He was edged out for a botany professorship at the University of Pennsylvania. He made a trip to the Ohio River and what was then the Western States, writing a book that he could not get published because of an economic downturn. 

In 1817, Rafinesque published Florula Ludoviciana, or, A Flora of the State of Louisiana, which was roundly criticized by many scholars of the day. But it was not written by Rafinesque—it was his translation and editing of the work of a French explorer, C. C. Robin, who published (in Paris, 1807), the memoirs of his travels through Florida in 1802-1806. In the Preamble, Rafinesque explains the difficulties he encountered in reconciling Robin’s work with his own and that of others. In particular, Rafinesque mentions the use of Jussieu’s family classes, which Robin had used, and which differed in some ways from Rafinesque’s own works, and certainly from those of Linnaeus. He also noted that while Robin’s work is interesting and useful, he was an amateur observer, whose descriptions often lacked the details needed for proper scientific description and classification. Apparently, his detractors thought that Rafinesque should have supplied these details, even though he had never been to Florida.

In 1817, Rafinesque also described the mule deer, which he had likewise never seen—he took his detailed scientific description from the published journal of Charles Le Raye, a Canadian trapper who had been captured by a Native American tribe in 1801 and held prisoner for 14 years. In that journal, Rafinesque found sufficient detail to name, describe, and classify nine new mammals, including the mule deer, that had not been previously described. ("Extracts from the Journal of Mr. Charles Le Raye, relating to some new Quadrupeds of the Missouri Region, with notes by C. S. R." in The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review, 1, no. 6 (October, 1817) 437-439.

In 1819 Rafinesque eventually procured a teaching post at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, but his good friend and mentor John D. Clifford, who was a trustee there, died suddenly only a year after Rafinesque arrived. He made Lexington his home for several years, teaching natural history and medical botany from physical specimens (innovative at the time) and trying without success to raise funds for a botanical garden. He was not liked by the University president and often encountered hostility and (he said) professional jealousy. Eventually, he left the University with a curse—which he believed was fulfilled during his lifetime, as the President fell into scandal and the University declined in reputation. Still, his tenure at Transylvania was among his most productive, and the peak of the University’s early reputation. He made several more trips west to the Ohio River and beyond, and continued to publish research from his collected specimens. “Transy” (as the University is called by its alumni) still celebrates “Raf week” every October, with a raffle to decide which students get to spend Halloween night at “Raf’s tomb” (read more). Their University mascot is Raf—a Rafinesque’s Big-Eared Bat (Corynorhinus rafinesquii).

In 1826, aged 43, Rafinesque returned to Philadelphia by a lengthy and circuitous route, with 40 cases of books and specimens, collecting still more all along the way. These specimens, along with annual summer trips through much of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, became the basis for much of his remaining life’s work—but the community that was supposed to pay for the transportation fell apart, the collection went into storage for several years, and many of the botanical specimens were damaged.  

He published the first volume of his Medical Flora of the United States in 1828 and a second in 1830. He created a number of herbal remedies that met with significant commercial success. It’s no surprise that these were labeled as “nostrums” (ineffective medicines, prepared by unqualified persons) by the physicians of his day, who favored bleeding, opium, and mercury-based remedies; and also by later biographers, who judged them by modern drug standards. 

In 1832 Rafinesque was naturalized as a U.S. citizen and began publishing a quarterly journal that only lasted for a couple of years, but earned him some notable scientific enemies. Over the next several years he published on a wide range of subjects, from banking and economics to poetry, and from ancient languages and astronomy to University administration and Utopian societies. However, few of his writings sold very well—his medicines always sold better than his books.

In 1836 he published his short volume “Life and Travels” which provides much of the biographical information still preserved about him. As a biography, it left much to be desired, including the fact that it ended years before he himself did. In it, he estimated that he had then written some 220 volumes, pamphlets, and articles.

That same year, in his Flora Telluriana, Rafinesque wrote: “it is needless to dispute about new genera, species and varieties. Every variety is a variation, which becomes a species as soon as it is permanent by reproduction. Deviations in essential organs may thus gradually become new genera." This passage was cited by Asa Gray, an eminent contemporary critic of Rafinesque, as a clear indication that Rafinesque had lost his mind—but in reality, it anticipates by 23 years the central principle laid out in Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). (T.J. Fitzpatrick, Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life, p. 48.)

He died on September 18, 1840, aged 57, of stomach and liver cancer in relative poverty. His landlord immediately seized his body to sell to science; his friends broke in and stole his body back, and buried him in a grave that was not well marked, and whose location is now unclear. His collections were sold off for a small fraction of their scientific value; his many unpublished manuscripts were sold for junk and many were lost. 

During his lifetime, Rafinesque used the term “eclectic” to describe doctors who would use whatever was found to be beneficial to their patients, including herbs of European, Native American, or other origins. Others quickly adopted the term, and from at least 1833 through 1939, the American or Eclectic school of medicine was known as an effective alternative to the bloodletting, mercury purges, and other barbarities of the conventional medicine of the time. 

After the publication of the Flexner report in 1910, alternative views in medicine were powerfully suppressed; medical schools that were not considered “mainstream” were closed, and doctors were often jailed. As a result, American herbal medicine is now a backwater, rather than the vibrant healing discipline it once was. Today, we assume there “is no alternative” to conventional medicine, precisely because there is no “alternative medicine”—it was systematically prohibited and eradicated by law.

In recent years, a favorite pastime of some modern biographers and commentators has been to diagnose and label Rafinesque as clinically insane—a charge often leveled by his opponents and detractors, but without any real evidence except his opposition to their collective views. Time has repeatedly proved him right, and them wrong. In addition, he made many lifelong friends, impressed many people in positions of influence and power, and made lasting contributions to zoology, botany, and many other fields of science that are now beyond dispute. Perhaps we can finally lay the calumny of his short-sighted rivals and detractors to rest? Which is more correct and sane, a scientist who sticks to personal principles that are later affirmed by history, or a doctor who tries to diagnose a man that has been dead for 180 years? 

In summing up, it may be stated that Rafinesque was no ordinary man. He had fairly well-defined opinions of the theory of evolution, thus antedating Darwin. He had some idea of the modern germ theory of disease. He was a pioneer in American archaeological investigations, a pioneer teacher of modern languages, and a pioneer object teacher. He was an earnest advocate of the natural classification in natural sciences while all his contemporaries held to the old Linnsean artificial system. He was also the inventor of the coupon system [for divisible financial instruments, e.g. bearer bonds]. What more is needed to give a man distinction? (T.J. Fitzpatrick, Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life, p. 43.) 

Truly, Rafinesque was a remarkable man. Today, a plaque at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky remembers him with these words: “Honor to whom honor is overdue.” Unfortunately, the bones over whom this plaque was installed are not those of Rafinesque—rather they are of a woman whose Philadelphia grave was confused with his when he was to be disinterred. It is perhaps one last strange twist of fate, in the always strange and wonderful story, of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque.

Comments (1)

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