Constantine Rafinesque

More than 50 years after Cadwallader Colden’s death, evidence for his influences upon American medicine were found in a number of materia medicas developed by the regular medical profession.  Until the 1820s, a number of materia medica books published on American medicines were incomplete in their coverage, or at least failed to mention any use of Colden’s work in the development of their writings.  One of the better examples of a plant materia medica published which documented Cadwallader Colden’s work along with other writers for the time, before and after, was the Medical Flora . . . by Constantine Rafinesque published in 1827.  This book provided fairly lengthy discourses on each of the plants udner review and provided an exceptionally complete listing of the primary references for the plant identification and its medical information. 

Rafinesque’s work contrasts considerably with a number of other fairly extensive writings on American plants medicines in which proper reference to the discoverers of this information were not provided, or if provided, did so in such a way that demonstrate a certain amount of preferrance toward the more heaily circulated plant writers.  The materia medica published by Bigelow exemplifies this to some extent, which although it provides very length essays on each plant, fails to make complete mention of its original information sources.  The same was true for the writing published by William P. C. Barton, which demonstrated both an under-citation method of writing and a tendency to show favoritism towards certain writers.  Even worse that the limited citation of or under-citation writing habits of Bigelow and Barton was the total lack of citations common to writers like Michaux.  It seems safe to state that a certain amount of cultural prejudice perhaps underlie some of the reasons for this lack of citations, but it is equally safe to say that a certain amount of loss of information was responsible for this effect as well.  The writer, in many cases, never really knew where the original knowledge came from and/or how the discovery of a particular plant use was made.  Even for certain portions of Rafinesque’s writings, this was also the case.

Another important set of plant medicine writings related to Codlenh’s work and this review of the regular medical books published on Amercian plant medicines and Colden’s impacts upon their history, are the numerous other materia medicas on plants produced pertaining to the non-allopathic forms of medicine.  These new forms of alternative medicine that became popular in the early history of the United were primarily of four types:  Indian Root Doctoring, Thomsonianism, Eclectic or Reformed Medicine, and a fairly non-specific generalized form of domestic herbal medicne passed on through families from one generation to the next, often practiced by female herbalists.  There were a number of pamphlets, booklets and books published between 1790 and 1825 pertaining to these unique forms of “irregular” medicine.   The non-allopathic doctors and herbalists were more responsible and active to some extent than the regular physicians when it came to passing on this information from one generation to the next, often resulting in some written version of this medical philosophy published by the time regular physicians were trying to accomplish much the same.   

In general, the regular medical profession, or regular doctors as they were called at the time (later, ca. 1840-5, termed “allopathy” due the Hahnemann and his use of the term “homeopathy”), had just a relatively few physicians who were as enthusiastic about American plant medicines as those helping to establish and solidify this part of the regular medical teachings, such as David Hossack and William and James Bartram.  The evidence for whether or not a particular medical botanist in regular medicine was both learned and supporting of American plant use can be told by his familiarity with the accomplishments by other American physicians before him.  In this way we find that some botanists, well known in this field, developed this knowledge later and perhaps third hand, without much knowledge as to the origins of the new information they were acquiring in the field of medical botany.  Constantine Rafinesque is not an example of such a medical botanist, his associates like the Bartrams and Bartons were to some extent guilty of this lack of experience with their peers in the field.

The best medical botanists for the period of ca. 1785 to 1835 are represented by those who were read and and familiar with the teachings of all botanists and plant medicine explorers from the generations before them.  Unfortunately, for Cadwallader Colden this means that only a few such individual can be located.  Much of the attention paid to Colden’s information reached only a few botanists interested in American plant medicines.  Those who were reached apparently had less of a cultural value system attached to their reqasons for either overlooking, not seeing, or even avoiding a review or mention of Colden’s plant medicine and botany writings.  Contantine Rafinesque is the best example of a botanist who paid as complete attention as possible to the writings of both Cadwallader Colden and his daughter Jenny.  For this reason we find a number of excellent reviews of medicinal plants that mention Colden as a source also rely very heavily upon a lengthier list of experts than those cited by such traditional scholars in this field with works published after the publication of Colden’s writings by Linnaues, such as Manessah Cutler, Benjamin Smith Barton, William P.C. Barton, Amos Eaton, Andre Michaux, John Torrey, and numerous others.

The following plants found in Rafinesque’s book (volume 1 only) make direct reference to Cadwallader Colden’s writings, including letters, as well as the work of his daughter Jane or Jenny Colden.  (The information on Jane is provided in a separate section devoted just to her work and accomplishments.)

The Book

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Notes of Rafinesque’s References

A number of research notes have to made regarding the books and articles Rafinesque used for this writing.  These notes will also provide some insights in to Rafinesque’s philosophy about herbal medicine in the United States and the extent to which he tried to identify every possible source available to him at the time.

  1. Rafinesque refers to Colden’s works in general, not by any journal title or article title.  We assume Cadwallader is the botanist he is referring to, but as book content demonstrates, he was also unknowingly referring to Cadwallader Colden’s daughter Jane.  It is possible he did not know Jane was associated with the one note he makes about her plant identified as Fibra aurea (Coptis), although he discusses its history with enough length to perhaps have learned this piece of knowledge from another direct and primary source (Schoepf’s work) if not the original source of Jane’s history.
  2. Rafinesque included the book New Guide to Health in his list of soruces.  This domestic medical guide, written around 1812 by Samuel Thomson (which Rafinesque misspelled), but published and distributed nationally for the first time around 1823 (with a few regional equivalents of this book with the local touch surfacing just before or about the same time).
  3. Rafinesque included Peter Smith’s Indian Doctor, which was perhaps the most widely distributed version of a materia medica on this subject.  This particular book had teachings that became popular between 1813 and 1820 in western New York and Ohio, and had several books of similar non-allopathic tradition not cited by Rafinesque.
  4. Rafinesque included the traditional writings of explorers and travellers, ranging from the works of Cornut and Jacques Carver both of whom explored New France (around 1630 and 1700 respectively), to the travels of Swedish-Finnish botanist Pedr Kalm, Robert Hunter’s Narrative about his excursion with Osage Indians west of the formal United States,  and Lewis and Clarkes report about their excursion to the Far West during the early 1800s.
  5. Aside from Colden, Rafinesque included the classical references for Colonial Medicine and early American botany, such as William Cullen, James Thacher, Linnaeus, Alexander Garden, Gronovius, and Lamarck (Charles Darwin’s opponent).
  6. Rafinesque made sure to include both traditional foreign or imported plant medicine sources of information along with local botanical medicine specialists such as Dr. Tully of Connecticut and a number of unnamed theses and dissertations specific to certain plant histories and uses.

Summary of Review

Of the 52 plants discussed in Volume 1 of Rafinesque’s work, 9 were somehow related to the Coldens, with a direct citation made as “Colden” and/or with reference to a writing by “Colden” such as a published letter.  There was also a citation to “Colden” that in fact referred to his daughter Jane Colden (reviewed elsewhere).

The following 8 plants with the Colden citation, with Cadwallader inferred, are reviewed on a separate page.  These reviews consist of the entire entry produced by Rafinesque, along with end notes for the plant in some of the cases.

  • Aralia nudicaulis
  • Aristolochia serpentaria
  • Botrophis serpentaria
  • Eupatorium perfoliatum
  • Frageria vesca
  • Gaultiera (Gaultheria) repens
  • Geranium maculatum
  • Hamamaelis virginiana