October 2, 1999

John James Audubon heard a loud thump come from the spare bedroom, then another. What in the world was his new houseguest doing? Now, the famous painter-naturalist was not an unsophisticated man. In his sixties at this point, he had been educated in Paris, had journeyed up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and exhibited in London and Edinburgh. Later he would make journeys to Labrador and to the Gulf of Mexico. But he probably saw no stranger sight than the one that greeted him as he opened the bedroom door. His new acquaintance, whom he described as having a long beard and lank black hair hanging loosely down over his shoulders, and who was by many accounts quite stout, was running wildly around the room, entirely unclothed, with Audubon's Cremona violin clutched by the neck, whacking away at a bat that was caroming wildly around the room. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, one of the more unusual imports to the United States, was after specimens.

He was born in 1783 in a suburb of Constantinople, to a prosperous French merchant and his German wife. When he was ten his father died and his mother arranged for her children to be educated by tutors in Marseilles and Leghorn (today's Livorno, Italy). By the time he was twelve he had read a thousand books and could speak several languages. Along the way he picked up a fascination for the natural sciences, and in 1802, accompanied by a brother, he traveled to the New World. For Rafinesque the word "New" was the operative one. His single-minded quest for discovery would lead him into more interests than any other ten people combined.

He settled in Philadelphia, got a job as a counting house clerk and set out in his spare time to see everything. In a flurry of activity unmatched until Teddy Roosevelt came along a hundred years later, he met everyone from a band of Osage Indians to President Jefferson, collected specimens of fish, plants and birds, and wrote a paper classifying the stuffed birds in Charles Willson Peale's Museum of Philadelphia. After three years he and his brother traveled to Sicily where they spent the next decade carrying out further researches and exporting medicinal plants. He married a local actress with whom he had absolutely nothing in common, and in 1815 he loaded fifty boxes of personal belongings, a large quantity of merchandise, and no wife, onto a ship headed for the U. S. He nearly drowned when his ship sank at the entrance to Long Island Sound, but Constantine Rafinesque was back to stay. He would seek out Audubon a few years later. The Cremona violin was avenged, by the way. In a joke that would have delighted P. T. Barnum, Audubon minutely described a number of fictitious fish to his guest. Ten ended up being mentioned in Rafinesque's published work on western fishes, to his great embarrassment.

I'm sure we'll run into Professor Rafinesque again somewhere down the road. For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte