Young Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840)
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840) has generated more interest in his life & work than almost any other American botanist & naturalist. He explored Kentucky from 1818 until 1825, collecting perhaps 10,000 specimens, &, in his career, published over 900 books & articles, described thousands of new genera & species (mostly plants). He remains a source of fascination, as articles & books that discuss Rafinesque continue to be published to this day. His Kentucky legacy is forever tied to that of botanist Dr. Charles Short, to Transylvania University & the supposed “infamous curse,” & to his botanical collecting & publishing on the flora of Kentucky.
Born in Turkey & raised in France, Rafinesque was a child prodigy & already a learned botanist & general naturalist, when he arrived in America at the age of 20. He later described himself as a botanist, naturalist, geologist, geographer, historian, poet, philosopher, economist, & philanthropist. He botanized for a few years in the middle Atlantic states, then returned to Europe, lived in Sicily for about 10 years, & returned to America in 1815, with a cargo of botanical drugs & 50 boxes of books & collections, all of which he lost in a shipwreck off Block Island, New York.
Discouraged but full of excitement about all the discoveries that awaited him, Rafinesque launched himself into a frenzy of activity over the next few years, traveling back & forth across the Alleghenies. From 1818 to 1826, Rafinesque focused his attentions almost entirely on Kentucky. An encounter with John James Audubon in Henderson Kentucky in 1818 produced several stories that have be-come legendary (see the accounts concerning Audubon’s violin & his drawings of a fake fish). Rafinesque eventually made his way to Lexington & secured a position as a Professor of Botany & Natural History at Transylvania University, a position he held until 1825. He traveled mostly in central & western portions of the state, collecting thousands of specimens in Kentucky. Early on he established a working relationship with Dr. Charles Short, a renowned Kentucky botanist, but this association eventually soured due to their different standards relating to information exchange & specimen preparation. He published Florula Kentuckiensis in 1824, the 1st general account of the plant life of the state.
After a disagreement with Horace Holley, the president of the university, in the Fall of 1825, Rafinesque departed Kentucky in 1826. He was said to have left a curse on the university; &, curiously, President Holley soon lost his position, contracted yellow fever & passed away from the disease, & in addition, the university admin-istration building burned down! Eventually Rafinesque settled in Philadelphia, but there he fell upon hard times, & died in 1840.
During his lifetime Rafinesque proposed more new names than any other American naturalist, a phenomenal total of about 2700 new genera & nearly 6900 new species, the majority being vascular plants. Sadly, most of his lifetime collections (containing an estimated 50,000 specimens & possibly 10,000 Kentucky specimens) have been lost. His herbarium was put on public sale, but without a single bidder it was left abandoned in a storage room, where the collection was heavily damaged by rats. Most specimens became very damaged & were discarded. Although some of his specimens remained at other herbaria, including some type specimens, there seems no doubt that thousands of possible type specimens were lost.
Viburnum rafinesquianum (downy arrowwood)Rafinesque’s published articles & books total over 900 titles. Included among them is the 1st descriptive outline of the vegetation regions of Kentucky, as well as the 1st general account of the plant life of Kentucky He also wrote a Medical Flora (1828-1830) that had great influence on the development of medical botany in the United States His many descriptions of new genera & species have been studied over the last few decades, & many of his names have been resurrected. Over 100 genera & species in Kentucky bear the “Raf.” author citation. Among the species named in memory of Rafinesque are Viburnum rafinesquianum (downy arrowwood) & Viola rafinesquii.