Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography by T. J. Fitzpatrick

Relentless curriculum vitae
Constantine Rafinesque
Back in the days of Lewis and Clark and John James Audubon, another lesser-known naturalist was also tramping the wilds of America’s frontier. Constantine Rafinesque was born in Europe, lived for a decade in Sicily, but spent most of his adult life working as a naturalist in America. He eventually settled down to a professorship at Transylvania University in Kentucky, which allowed him to explore much of what was then considered the western United States. In his 1911 book on Rafinesque, botanist and famed book collector Thomas Jefferson Fitzpatrick briefly recounts the life of this eccentric scientist and provides an extensive bibliography of his published writings.

Fitzpatrick’s biography of Rafinesque is drawn almost entirely from the latter’s 1836 autobiography A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe. Fitzpatrick’s account often reads as if he merely changed Rafinesque’s text from first to third person. After he covers the events of Rafinesque’s death, however, Fitzpatrick does add some valuable content in the form of eulogies and posthumous assessments of Rafinesque by his contemporary naturalists, some of whom praise his accomplishments and some of whom accuse him of being a crackpot. Fitzpatrick also reproduces a revealing autobiographical passage from Rafinesque’s book New Flora, in which he relates the hardships and joys of life as a roving naturalist.

Although Fitzpatrick’s contributions as a biographer may be minimal, he makes up for it as a bibliographer. Here he has compiled a detailed list of Rafinesque’s published writings totalling 939 entries, as well as an overview of the unpublished manuscripts he left behind. Even though Richard Ellsworth Call compiled a Rafinesque bibliography in his 1895 book The Life and Writings of Rafinesque, Fitzpatrick greatly expands upon Call’s foundation. New material is still being discovered, so Fitzpatrick’s bibliography has since been expanded and updated by Charles Boewe in 1982 and 2001. The bibliography, of course, is not something most readers are going to peruse word-for-word, but browsing through the titles of Rafinesque’s publications gives one a revealing overview of this naturalist’s peculiarly wide range of interests.

One thing’s for sure, Rafinesque took the saying “publish or perish” quite seriously. One strategy that contributed to his prolific output is that he edited and published his own scientific journals, loaded with two- to four-page articles that he penned himself. In these publications—among them Specchio delle Scienze, Western Minerva, and Atlantic Journal—Rafinesque published articles in a staggering array of fields, not just botany, zoology, and geology but also meteorology, astronomy, chemistry, political economy, linguistics, archeology, art, poetry, physics, and metaphysics. He even dabbled in banking schemes and invented patent medicines for tuberculosis.

In addition to his hundreds of articles, Rafinesque published dozens of books and scores of pamphlets. Most critics agree that he made some genuinely valuable discoveries in the areas of botany and ichthyology. Many also assert, however, that he was a dilettante and a bit of a quack, and he had a tendency to prematurely claim the discovery of new species. Nevertheless, Rafinesque lived a fascinating life, and Fitzpatrick’s book gives the reader a vivid glimpse into the spirit of adventure, voracious thirst for knowledge, and propensity for self-aggrandizement that fueled his life and work.
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