Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz (1783-1840)

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Image from an enamel miniature possibly by William Birch (1755-1834)

Rafinesque: a portrait of a young man

Original miniature at Transylvania University.1

Frontispiece from Rafinesque's Analyse de la Nature (Palermo, 1815)

Rafinesque: a portrait of a young man


There is one word that is consistently associated with Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz: "genius," often modified by an adjective that is slightly disparaging, such as "eccentric." Intellectually, he was arrogant—with justification. Socially, he was unfit—by choice. He would be remarkably successful in a diverse array of fields—only to be honored in none. He would be widely discredited in life, yet more and more honored today as scholars begin to realize just how farsighted were his writings.

Born in Turkey of a German mother and a French father on October 22, 1783, he grew up in Marseilles, France, in a house of books. By age twelve he had read a thousand of them, built an herbarium, and taught himself Latin. Yet he was totally undisciplined. Although he did have an occasional tutor, he learned only what he wished in his own self-taught school. And what he wanted to learn was botany.2

In 1802, at age nineteen, Rafinesque came to America, apprenticing at the mercantile house of the Clifford Brothers in Philadelphia. Three years later he left America for Sicily, where he developed a successful business. There he was to remain for a decade.3 Rafinesque's return to the United States in 1815 was a period both of great joy and profound sadness. Unfortunately, after a six-month ocean voyage the ship carrying all of his books, collections and manuscripts foundered off the coast near New London, Connecticut.4 Except for some money, all was lost. His children's mother suddenly left him for a Sicilian actor, his son, Charles Linnaeus had died before he left Sicily, and it would be years before he corresponded with his daughter Emilia. Yet, he was free to wander and to write, and he did both.

1. Charles Boewe, the recognized authority on the life and times of Rafinesque questioned the attribution of this miniature to William Birch. He pointed out that Rafinesque was hardly in a position to afford the talents of a noted society painter like Birch. He acknowledged the miniature might have been commissioned but when and by who remains uncertain. The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation considered the miniature to have been painted "in 1810" but this is impossible as Birch was never in Sicily. Boewe suggested the image resembles that done by Falopi (right) in 1810, and thus the assumption of date "1810" for the miniature. See Boewe et al. 1987, pages 103-104.

2. Rafinesque was born in Galata, a suburb of Constantinople, to Francois and Madeleine Schmaltz Rafinesque. His father was a French merchant then residing in the city but his mother was the daughter of a German merchant family who had long resided in the Levant. The death of Constantine's father in 1793 resulted in a decline in the family's fortune so that any opportunity of a university education was denied him by circumstances. While in Sicily, Constantine altered in last name from Rafinesque to Rafinesque-Schmaltz, adding his mother's name, as he did not wish to be considered French when the French army was poised to invade British-held Sicily.

3. While in Sicily, Rafinesque was secretary to the U.S. consul. He was involved in the international trade of commodities, the most important being medicinal plants. All during this time he was collecting plants on the island, and here his interest in fish would flourish. By visiting the Palermo market he found several new species that he quickly named and described in two works published in 1810. Rafinesque had two children by a woman he could not marry, he being Protestant and she a Roman Catholic.

4. Rafinesque stated that he had on board some fifty boxes of books and specimens. The collection supposedly contained about sixty thousand shells alone.