Rafinesque at Transylvania

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Dark-throat shootingstar

Dodecatheon pulchellum (Raf.) Merr.7

Dark-throat shooting star

Photo © 2000 by James L. Reveal

The year 1819 found Rafinesque in Kentucky, the newly appointed professor of botany at Transylvania University—the first such institution west of the Appalachian Mountains. Lexington, Kentucky, was a small, out-of-the-way place, and this was a perfect setting for him. As was his wont, Rafinesque immediately set the presses to roll. He published Annals of nature wherein he proceeded to describe most of the new genera and species of plants and animals he was finding, with the promise this would be a yearly exercise. In 1821, the "first volume" of Western Minerva appeared. Then, in 1825, came Neogenyton, where he described 66 new genera of plants for North America. Not unlike a genius, Rafinesque also taught French and Italian and later served as the University's librarian.

The outrage from his fellow American and European botanists was immediate and intense. Almost without exception he was condemned for the minor and insignificant differences that he felt qualified certain groups of plants to be separated as new genera. For many, the proliferation of generic names in Neogenyton and elsewhere was more of an annoyance than anything else and, as a result, the great majority simply ignored the names, and almost anything else Rafinesque published.

Life in Lexington was not going smoothly either. It seems that Professor Rafinesque tended to miss more classes than his students, and when he taught, his lectures were often far beyond what his students could comprehend. Then there was the matter of the apparent affair with the wife of the university president. Not surprising, in 1826, the president fired Rafinesque and forced him to leave the city. As a result, Rafinesque returned to Philadelphia, where he spent the rest of his life.

But, not before placing a curse upon the university. Today, Rafinesque's curse still plagues the institution, at least in theory, as the entire week before Halloween is devoted to "Rafy," and there may or may not still be a secret society that bears his name.8


7. This beautiful western species was named, in 1840, by Rafinesque, who knew it only from a published illustration. The seeds of the species were gathered in Canada and grown in England. There are several closely related species in North America, yet Rafinesque was able to recognize this as a new species although no one else, up to the time, had realized this was not the same as the eastern North American species. Even the shootingstar collected by Lewis and Clark in 1806 went unnamed until 1930.

8. Transylvania University was founded in 1780 and remains today a fine private, liberal arts institution. Known to its faculty and students alike as "Trancy," the institution abounds with stories of "Rafy." The curse Rafinesque is supposed to have uttered upon leaving the institution at the President's request was something like "Damn thee and thy school as I place curses upon you!" Although not anywhere near Lexington, when the university's main administration building, Old Morrison, burned to the ground, and then the president who fired Rafinesque died shortly thereafter, Rafinesque's curse was blamed and thus started the tradition. Supposedly, the effects of the curse are felt every seven years. A group of former students—reportedly members of an organization called the Hemlock Society—disinterred Rafinesque's body from its pauper's grave in Philadelphia and brought his remains back to the University in 1924. As is only fitting with a curse, when Old Morrison burned again in 1969, every room was gutted except the one where Rafinesque was entombed. Today, students celebrate Rafinesque Week just before Halloween, and on Halloween night some lucky raffle winner gets to spend the night in the tomb. For anyone familiar with university dining halls, it does not take much imagination to understand why the one at Transylvania University is called "The Rafskeller."