Rafinesque at Transylvania Again

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Bull elephant's-head
Bull elephant's-head (Pedicularis groelandica Retz.)11
Photo © 2000 by James L. Reveal

Death came to Rafinesque in 1840, the result of cancer. Aside from the sale of his collections–which were sold as junk–his passing went largely unnoticed. Elias Durand, then a botanist at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, went through the stable where Rafinesque's collections were in storage for some three years after his death and took relatively little for posterity. The rest was destroyed, already badly damaged by mold, mice and weather through neglect. For some reason, what Rafinesque worked most of his professional life to build was allowed to deteriorate following his death.12 His library was sold and scattered. Yet, even in death, myth and Rafinesque were to be synonymous.

Tradition has it that Rafinesque had long lived in what could only be described as wretched poverty and died in a garret. His body was supposedly removed through a window by rope and buried to keep the landlord from selling his remains to a medical school. Tradition also has it that he was buried as a pauper. And most significantly, tradition proclaims that his remains were eventually disinterred and taken back to Transylvania University by a group of former students.

And the facts? According to Boewe, Rafinesque lived in a rented house in a modest section of Philadelphia. He rented the entire house, devoting most of its space to his collection. He published numerous books and journals in his later years, all at his own expense, and while the combination of housing and publishing took much of his available cash, he was hardly living in abject poverty as so often stated. No doubt some of this was made possible as a result of the patronage provided by Charles Wetherill, a chemist and Philadelphia businessman. Even at the end, one or even two doctors attended him as well as "a woman of the house" who was probably in constant attendance–hardly an indication of a poor person.

Rafinesque died of stomach and liver cancer according to a detailed autopsy performed on 19 September 1840, the day after he died. The body was not spirited away, for the autopsy probably took place in the house where Rafinesque died. Rafinesque was buried in the Philadelphia Cemetery (later called Ronaldson's Cemetery). At the time the cemetery was well cared for and park-like in both appearance and use. The funeral expenses were sixteen dollars, a modest amount by contemporary standards. The coffin was of oak; there is no evidence a member of the clergy attended.

In 1919, Rafinesque's gravesite was located and a marker erected by Anthony M. Hance, Samuel N. Rhoads and Henry C. Mercer, all of Pennsylvania. News of this event reached Lexington, and the librarian at what was then Transylvania College, Elizabeth Norton, wrote to Mercer expressing thanks. By 1919, Ronaldson's Cemetery was in a profound state of neglect; it was also full. Fearing that the cemetery would be destroyed, Norton promoted the idea of returning the remains of Rafinesque to Lexington. In 1987, Boewe described the efforts made by Norton and her Philadelphia brother, James A. Spencer, to obtain the remains. In February of 1924, Transylvania's Dean Thomas Macartney went to Philadelphia and obtained some remains. These were subsequently laid to rest in a place of honor in Old Morrison and the tomb marked by an epitaph taken from Rafinesque's 1836 autobiography, A Life of Travels.

What is perhaps not always appreciated by modern society is that a single gravesite was frequently reused, often many times over. The first person buried in a given spot would be interred deep enough to allow subsequent coffins to be positioned above the earlier coffin or coffins. In the case of Rafinesque, he was buried above two other persons and eventually three more were buried above him.

According to Boewe, this fact was unknown to those who went searching for Rafinesque's remains in the winter of 1924. All the evidence now suggests that one Miss Mary Passimore resides in Rafinesque's tomb at Transylvania University.

Ronaldson's Cemetery is now gone. The site is a playground. The bodies–or at least some of the bodies–were removed to Forest Hills Cemetery in the Somerton section of Philadelphia. It is not known if Rafinesque went there or remained behind. What now seems certain is that he did not end up in Kentucky. Like his father, he too lies in an unmarked Philadelphia grave.

A year after Rafinesque died, Asa Gray, the botanist at Harvard University, penned the line that has come to be associated with the memory of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: "A gradual deterioration will be observed in Rafinesque's botanical writings from 1819 to 1830, when the passion for establishing new genera and species appears to have become a complete monomania." History has not been kind to the body or the memory of Rafinesque. Like Meriwether Lewis, much of Rafinesque's life remains steeped in myth.


Boewe, C. 1982. Rafinesque: A sketch of his life with bibliography by T. J. Fitzpatrick, revised by Charles Boewe. M & S Press, Weston, Massachusetts.

Boewe, C. 1987. Pennsylvania Mag. Hist. Biography 61: 213-235.

Boewe, C., G. Reynaud & B. Seaton (eds.) 1987. Précis ou abrégé des voyages, travaux, et recherches de C. S. Rafinesque; The original version of A Life of Travels. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co.

Call, R. E. 1895. The life and writings of Rafinesque. John P. Morton & Co., Louisville, Kentucky. [Facsimile edition in Sterling; see below.]

Fitzpatrick, T. J. 1911. Rafinesque: A sketch of his life with bibliography by T. J. Fitzpatrick. Historical Department of Iowa, Des Moines. [Facsimile edition in Sterling; see below.]

Flores, D. (ed.). 1984. Thomas Jefferson & southwestern exploration: The Freeman & Custis accounts of the Red River Expedition of 1806. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Flores, D. 2000. A very different story: Exploring the Southwest from Monticello with the Freeman and Custis Expedition of 1806. Montana. The magazine of western history Vol. 50, No. 1: 2-17.

Kastner, J. 1977. A species of eternity. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Merrill, E. D. 1949. Index rafinesquianus. Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts.

Morton, C. V. 1967. Freeman and Custis' account of the Red River Expedition of 1806, an overlooked publication of botanical interest. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 48: 431-459.

Rafinesque, C. S. 1836. A life of travels and researches in North America and South Europe. Published by the author, Philadelphia. [Reprinted in Chronica Botanica (8: 298-353. 1944) with an introduction by E. D. Merrill.]

Reveal, J. L. 1992. Gentle conquest. The botanical discovery of North America with illustrations from the Library of Congress. Starwood Publishing, Washington, D.C.

Reveal, J. L. & J. S. Pringle. 1993. "Taxonomic botany and floristics," pp. 157-192. In: Flora of North America Editorial Committee (ed.), Flora of North America north of Mexico. Volume 1. Oxford University Press, New York.

Sterling, K. B. 1978. Rafinesque, autobiography and lives. Arno Press, New York.

NOTE: I am grateful to Dr. Charles Boewe for providing me with additional information on Rafinesque and for calling attention to several misstatements in my initial presentation. Those interested in Rafinesque should look for a 120-page, paperback supplement to his 1982 Rafinesque bibliograph–titled "Mantissa"–published in 2001 by M & S Press.

11. Pedicularis groenlandica[pee-DICK-you-lair-ess grun-LAN-dee-kah] was one of the already known species found by Lewis and Clark near modern-day Kamiah, Idaho. Its curious arrangement of the floral part led one twentieth century botanist to propose the genus Elephantella [ella-FAN-tell-ah]. This is species is markedly different from most other members of Pedicularis and it is surprising that Rafinesque did not describe the new genus himself.

12. The destruction of Rafinesque's natural history collection, even in its deteriorated condition, was one of the great tragedies in systematic biology. Rafinesque named more than 6,500 new species of plants over his lifetime, and without the whole of his herbarium it is often difficult to know exactly what he had before him when he named his plants. Elias Magliore Durand (1794-1873) was a talented botanist and a good curator. He knew what a collection of plants ought to be like. What he could not appreciate in 1843-1844 (when he purchased the collection) was that some seventy years later botanists would establish the "type method" for determining the application of names. In other words, by consulting a specific specimen one would be able to learn exactly how a given name was to be applied. With Rafinesque's names, this is often impossible to accomplish because there is not a type specimen to examine. Durand seemingly had a falling out at the Academy of Natural History in his later years and decided to send his personal herbarium of nearly 8000 sheets to Paris. There one can see a few of the Rafinesque specimens today, but because they generally lack labels, it is difficult to know exactly what came from Rafinesque's collection. Other Rafinesque plant specimens may be seen at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and at the near by Westchester University. It was Rafinesque's dream to establish a university and house his collections therein. For systematic biology, this failure will always remain a tragic loss.