An “Odd Fish” Who Swam Against the Tide

The pioneering naturalist Constantine Rafinesque did just about everything, and he always did it his way

Rafinesque Constantine Samuel 1783-1840
Rafinesque Constantine Samuel 1783-1840 Wikimedia Commons

The intellectual breadth of the man was enormous. By the time he was 52, he had been a botanist, geologist, historian, poet, philosopher, philologist, economist, merchant, manufacturer, professor, surveyor, architect, author and editor, among other accomplishments. In the early and middle 1800s, he roamed the eastern part of the North American continent, collecting and cataloguing plants and animals. He is credited with having first described more than 100 species.

Though his erudition was impressive, Rafinesque's readiness to advertise it made him a difficult man to like. One 19th-century educator observed that "no more remarkable figure has ever the annals of science.... But Rafinesque loved no man or woman." During his various stints as a teacher, he was often a figure of fun. Whenever he did something or thought something, he almost always wrote a book or monograph on the topic. One book, a 5,400-line epic poem, discusses a theory of evolution that predates Darwin's by more than 20 years. He could make mistakes, one scholar concedes, but because "he thought almost anything [was] possible in nature," Rafinesque's thinking was far ahead of his time.

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