Rafinesque in New York

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photo: Golden-hardhack blossom

Golden-hardhack (Dasiphora floribunda (Pursh) Raf.)5
Photo © 2000 James L. Reveal

Before he left the United States in late December of 1804, Rafinesque had approached Thomas Jefferson asking to be appointed naturalist to one of the President's proposed western expeditions. After some delay, Jefferson sort of agreed to send him on the Red River expedition to be led by William Dunbar and George Hunter. Alas for young Rafinesque, he received word that he would be appointed only after he was in Sicily. Considering that the natural history collections of the Dunbar-Hunter and the Freeman-Custis expeditions were essentially nil, science lost out on both accounts.6

Now, upon his return, without books, collections or family, he set out to recover at least the first two with the support of friends in New York. While in Sicily, Rafinesque had been publishing widely, both books and, especially, articles in scientific journals, most notably the New York-based journal Medical Repository. His journal Specchio delle scienze, (two volumes) published in 1814, and his 1815 book Analyse de la nature may be mentioned as representative contributions; both were published in Palermo. The latter work was particularly significant for here Rafinesque outlined a system of classification for all living organisms that was remarkably novel. For botany it could have been highly significant had he fully described all of the groups he recognized. Instead, he treated only a few in detail as examples, leaving the vast majority of the new names without descriptions. As a result, later authors published many of his new families of plants without giving him credit. And about that he complained bitterly.

Dr. Samuel Mitchill
Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill (1765-1831)
Courtesy of Barnard College, Columbia University

Tradition suggests that Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill7 took Rafinesque into his home. As a noted student of the natural sciences, he was generous to his fellow naturalists. Alexander Wilson, who would describe the birds gathered on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was an early recipient of his generosity. While Rafinesque lived in Sicily, he published several papers in Mitchill's journal Medical Repository, so in a sense the two men were at least scientifically acquainted. In addition to providing lodging for the near-destitute Rafinesque, Mitchill sought employment for him. Rafinesque became a member of the newly established Lyceum of Natural History in New York and presented its first scientific lecture. At first he possibly was in the field with Mitchill and certainly with the New York botanist John Torrey, but by 1818 he was traveling alone, often into the Allegheny Mountains, to search for all sorts of curious objects. By Rafinesque's count, he collected more than 250 new species of plants and animals on these early trips.

Rafinesque published numerous critical reviews of floras and manuals published by others, mainly in the American Monthly Magazine. In 1817, he published Florula ludoviciana, only to have his effort severely criticized by others, or, worse yet for Rafinesque, totally ignored. Still, he was traveling widely and he was gradually rebuilding his collection of natural history objects.


5. Rafinesque described the genus Dasiphora (daze-IF-fore-ah) for the shrubby potentillas that are now so popular in the garden. Dasiphora floribunda (floor-ah-BUN-dah, referring to the many flowers on the shrub) of North America is closely related to Dasiphora fruticosa (fruit-EH-coal-ah, referring to the shrubby habit) of Europe and Asia and is more properly considered a subspecies. Pursh published Potentilla floribunda (poe-TEN-till-ah) in 1813. He based the name on plants from eastern North America. He felt at the time that the Lewis and Clark specimen from Montana was more like the Old World Potentilla fruticosa than his new species.

6. Dr. Boewe told me that of 15 Dec 1804 Jefferson wrote to Rafinesque " 'Certainly I should be happy to add your botanical talents to the party [of Hunter and Dunbar], but that it is not in my power to propose any birth [sic] worthy of your acceptance.' Most would consider this a "Chinese rejection slip"--i.e. a negative phrased to spare the feelings of the recipient." The letter did not reach Rafinesque until 1805.

William Dunbar, a noted local scientist, and George Hunter, a Philadelphia chemist, were selected by Jefferson to explore the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase much in the same manner Lewis and Clark were asked to explore the northern boundary. After much delay, Dunbar and Hunter lead a four-month-long expedition up the Ouachita River in Louisiana, an area already partially settled. Based on their findings, Jefferson obtained $5,000 from Congress to examine the Red River region. The actual expedition did not get started until May of 1806, with Thomas Freeman (1794-1821) in charge and Barton-trained Peter Custis (?-1842) acting as the expedition's naturalist. Being on the boundary of Spanish Mexico, there was considerable suspicion of the real intentions of the expedition. After a journey of some 615 miles up the Red River, the expedition was met by Spanish troops and forced to return (Flores 2000). Without a centralized national museum (the Smithsonian Institution would not be established until 1846), the collections of natural objects gathered by Custis were scattered and his report destined to be long forgotten. It was not until 1967 that the botanical report was evaluated (Morton, 1967), and not until 1982 that two plant specimens were relocated and the specimens identified. Interestingly, the Custis specimens were among the Lewis and Clark plants at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (Flores 1985). Custis described only three plants as new to science in 1806, but none of his name is in use today. The one plant he thought was new, the Osage orange, Maclura pomifera (Raf.) Schneid. [mac-CLURE-ah pome-IF-er-ah), was named (in 1817) from garden material grown from fruits Lewis and Clark had gathered in 1804. Custis did not propose a name for the Osage orange in either 1806 or 1807. Custis did propose the genus name Bartonia, but this had already been published in 1801. The plant Custis had is now known as Orobanche ludoviciana (ore-oh-BANK-ee lude-oh-viss-ee-AHN-ah), a name proposed by Nuttall in 1818.

7. Samuel Latham Mitchill (1764-1831) had a brilliant career in medicine, natural history and politics. He served in both houses of Congress and held various posts in New York. Mitchill, like Rafinesque, had an incredible mind and could remember even the minutest detail so that he was sometimes called a "walking library" or a "living encyclopedia." He married a widow of substantial means and thus he was able to devote considerable time to botany and zoology, especially the study of fish. Mitchill assisted Lewis in the identification of some of the fish he and Clark saw in the American West. His 1820 United States pharmacopoeia would serve the nation's doctors well for a generation.