Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tales of Rafinesque

For some two hundred and sixty years, thanks to Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, we have been building taxonomic histories for our known species.  The Linnaean system has provided a common framework for identifying species and, as writer Richard Conniff has posited, it kicked off the “great age of discovery about the natural world.”  (The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, 2011, p. 3.)  To me, one of the more appealing aspects of this system of scientific nomenclature is that the name of the fossil you just plucked, perhaps somewhat cavalierly, from the sand may hold a key to an unexpected and rich story of naturalists and exploration.  So it is with a tiny fossil shark tooth I found several days ago while collecting along the shoreline at the northern end of the Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay.  The small tooth pictured below is from a species of Alopias or thresher shark (lingual side on the left, labial on the right).

(An aside:  Material along this stretch of the Chesapeake shore is from the mid-Miocene Epoch, roughly 15 million years old.  Besides muddled thinking, the only other excuse for the inconsistent and vague dates I’ve ascribed at various times in this blog to the fossils found here is that the cliffs expose a range of formations, as well as beds within those formations.  They get younger as they get closer to the top, and fossils can be shed from most of these.)

Bretton Kent identifies just two Miocene species of true Alopias found in this area – Alopias latidens and A. aff. superciliosus (“aff.” signals that the species in question is similar though not identical to the named species – i.e., we don’t really know what species this is).  (Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994, p. 71-73.)  I’m not sure which of these two species lost this particular tooth, but I’m inclined to label it A. aff. superciliosus because of its narrow crown. Kent says this species, compared to A. latidens, is “more slender and delicate.”  Unfortunately, A. aff. superciliosus is supposed to have a deep nutrient groove in the lingual side of its root.  Just to confound the issue (something that frequently happens in the identification game), there’s none in this specimen.

The body plan of the thresher shark is curious, to say the least.

(This drawing of an Alopias vulpinus is from A History British Fishes by William Yarrell, Volume II, 2nd Edition, 1841, p. 522.)

In general, the big-eyed, small-mouthed thresher shark can exceed 10 feet in length, from tip of the snout to end of the caudal fin (tail).  The tail may make up fully half of its body length.  Leonard Compagno et al. identify three Alopias species alive today, with all of them under some threat to their well being (Compagno deems each “likely depleted.”  Sharks of the World, 2005, p. 179-180.)

What’s the value to these sharks of such exaggerated tails?  It’s really quite amazing.  Of the extant Alopias superciliosus, Compagno writes that it “[u]ses its tail to stun the pelagic fishes on which it feeds.”  Even more intriguing, he asserts that the extant Alopias vulpinus “[h]erds and stuns small fishes with its tail, sometimes cooperatively.”

But the striking body plan of this shark and its creative use of the tail aren’t what inspired this post, rather, the spark was the fish’s complete genus name:  Alopias Rafinesque 1810a.


Even from the outset, not knowing anything about this person Rafinesque, the name seemed to have a certain mysterious flair.  It seemed a lovely, highly descriptive adjective.  Yes, having learned a bit about Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783 – 1840), this would make a delightful adjective.  Someone could be rafinesque if he or she is decidedly eccentric, bounding with energy, and awash with plans but unable to follow through with most of them.  In other words, someone likely to bedevil his or her colleagues.

(This drawing is from Rafinesque’s Analyse de la Nature, published in 1815.  I have provided a link to this publication.  Other books cited below which are available online in full text for free are similarly linked.  Unfortunately all of the articles I cite are set behind paywalls.)

Rafinesque was born in Turkey to a French father and a German mother who held Greek citizenship.  In 1793, his businessman father, on one of his international trading sojourns, died of yellow fever in Philadelphia.  Rafinesque fils grew up shuttling from relative to relative along the Mediterranean.  His formal education was minimal, but he was a voracious reader, having read 1,000 (his number) scientific and philosophical tomes by age 12.  Keeping score was an impulse that manifested itself early as did his attraction to natural history and the collection of specimens.  A trip into the field seemed to trump all other activities.  (In preparing the overview of Rafinesque’s life presented in this post, I consulted various secondary as well as primary sources.  Most are cited at different points below.)

He made his first voyage to the United States in 1802, a journey ostensibly undertaken to further a business career, but business clearly took a backseat to natural history.  He traveled through much of the northeast, often on foot, collecting specimens and, apparently, making the acquaintance of the leading naturalists in America.

A subsequent business opportunity took him to Sicily where he worked for English banker Abram Gibbs, who was also at the time the American consul in Palermo.  In the process, Rafinesque apparently made a small fortune which freed him to engage in his natural history pursuits.  An insatiable urge to identify new species took hold and he began the outpouring of published works that would mark most of his adult life.  In 1810, he published a couple of volumes, one of which, Caratteri Di Alcuni Nuovi Generi E Nuove Specie Di Animali E Piante Della Sicilia (I translate this title as Some Characteristics Of New Genera and New Species Of Animals And Plants Of Sicily) provided the name and description of the Alopias genus of shark (e.g., “extremely long tail” and “minute sharp teeth,” p. 12 -13) and so tied his name to this shark genus.

In 1815 Rafinesque returned to America where he would remain for the rest of his life.  His arrival was dramatic and disastrous.  As the ship he was on attempted to reach New York City through the Long Island Sound, it struck rocks and sank.  Rafinesque lost everything.  By his own reckoning, he had set sail with “a large parcel of drugs and merchanize [sic], besides 50 boxes containing my herbal, cabinet, collections and part of my library [punctuation in the original].  I took all my manuscripts with me, including 2000 maps and drawings, 300 copperplates, &c.  My collection of shells was so large as to include 600,000 specimens large and small.  My herbal was so large that I left a part of it.”  (A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe, or Outlines of the Life, Travels and Researches of C.S. Rafinesque, A.M. Ph.D, 1836, p. 45)  And so the wandering began.

Many of the ensuing 25 years were spent on the move collecting specimens and exploring his new homeland.  Often he went on foot, as he did for several crossings of the Alleghenies, traveling from the east coast to places west, and back again.  As he journeyed to and fro, he collected plants, animals, and fossils.  To say Rafinesque was a field naturalist is an understatement.  He was in his element when hiking back roads and tramping through fields and woods, collecting specimens.

But his range of interests and activities were broad, overly broad.  By his own account, he had been
a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist . . . . By profession a Traveller [sic], Merchant, Manufacturer, Collector, Improver [of course], Professor, Teacher, Surveyor, Draftsman, Architect, Engineer, Pulmist [apparently, one who treats diseases of the lungs], Author, Editor, Bookseller, Librarian, Secretary . . . and I hardly know myself what I may not become as yet: . . . 
He added bitterly,
. . . since whenever I apply myself to any thing, which I like, I never fail to succeed if depending on me alone, unless impeded and prevented by lack of means, or the hostility of the foes of mankind.”  (Travels, p. 148.)
Indeed, he knew failure and tended to blame it on machinations against him.  Even what I believe was his most sustained undertaking, teaching natural history and botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1819 to 1826, ended badly.  And, after a rancorous departure from the university, he wandered back east, coming to rest in Philadelphia where he died in 1840.

How was he as a naturalist?  Writer Charles Boewe described Rafinesque as having a “lust for discovery” which trumped everything, even the proper treatment of those new species he believed he had discovered.  (Rafinesque Among the Field Naturalists, Bartonia, Number 54, 1988, p. 55.)  “. . . Rafinesque never could pause long to think about the meaning of a discovery; he plunged headlong after fresh discoveries – in the field when possible, from other sources where necessary.”  (Boewe, p. 53)

Rafinesque was a taxonomic splitter par excellence, reveling in the identification of new species and genera from the minutest variation (or on the basis of some description he’d merely read!), ultimately to the irritation and frustration of his contemporary naturalists and to the scientists who would come after him and try to make sense of (and frequently undo) his names and descriptions.  (Conniff, The Species Seekers, p. 124.)  Compounding the taxonomic challenge he created by naming new species right and left, was the fact that, fairly early on, the prolific Rafinesque wore out his welcome in the world of mainstream natural history publications and resorted to self published pieces or obscure journals.  Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Rafinesque is credited with the first descriptions of over 100 plant and animal species.  (Bil Gilbert, An Odd Fish Who Swam Against the Tide, Smithsonian, Volume 29, Number 10, January 1999.)

There was, though, some virtue in Rafinesque’s compulsion to see new species everywhere.  He tumbled early to the notion that what might distinguish one species from another could be characteristics that were in flux.  He dismissed critics of his splitting by saying that, even if what he had named were just varieties, not species, soon enough they would be new species.  (Conniff, p. 126.)  When Darwin decided that it had been a mistake not to include, in On The Origin of Species, an acknowledgment of his “intellectual predecessors,” those previous naturalists and thinkers who had paved the way for his new theory, he began to compile a list (which he titled an Historical Sketch) to include in subsequent editions.  It was undertaken in part to ward off the accusations that he had misappropriated others’ ideas.  (Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts:  The Secret History of Evolution, 2012, p. 1.)  By the third English edition of On the Origin, Rafinesque had made the list.  Darwin wrote,
Rafinesque, in his 'New Flora of North America,' published in 1836, wrote (p. 6) as follows:—"All species might have been varieties once, and many varieties are gradually becoming species by assuming constant and peculiar characters:" but further on (p. 18), he adds, "except the original types or ancestors of the genus."  (From the fourth edition of On the Origin of Species, as reprinted in Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts, p. 294.)
I was amused to find that, when Darwin corresponded with botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker on December 29, 1860, in search of the publication date of Rafinesque’s New Flora of North America, he wrote of Rafinesque:
Poor Naturalist as he was, he has [a] good sentence about species & vars. which I must quote in my Historical Sketch &; I sadly want the date at once.  (From the Darwin Correspondence Project.)
The Rafinesque tale is replete with strange and wonderful stories.  Particularly delicious is the episode when, during an unexpected and uninvited visit to the ornithologist John James Audubon, Rafinesque was found one night running around his room, stark naked, swinging the remains of one of Audubon’s violins in a futile effort to knock down the bats that had come in through the window and that he was convinced were a new species.  (Audubon, Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America, 1831, p. 457; also quoted in Conniff, p. 119.)

And, of course, there had to be some controversy over his death.  That, upon Rafinesque's demise, his landlord attempted to sell his corpse to a medical school only to be thwarted by friends who spirited the body away is, according to writer Charles Boewe, apocryphal.  But, when the naturalist’s remains were unearthed in 1924 and removed to Transylvania University to be entombed there, it was only fitting that apparently the wrong body made its way from Philadelphia to Lexington.  (Charles Boewe, Who’s Buried in Rafinesque’s Tomb?, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 111, No. 2, April, 1987.)

Fascinating tales to spring from a little fossil shark tooth.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Tale of Two Photographs ~ True Narratives or Not

Seeing a photograph is a form of literacy.  To look at a photograph is to read it.  One may glance at an image as a note or a headline, scan it as a poem, or ponder it as a profound essay.  There are many points of view, from technical to esthetic.  The greater one’s experience, the more one is able to read in a photograph.  The more too, one will question it.
~ William C. Darrah, Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography (1981), p. 1

Photographs are awash in data about the persons, places, things depicted, as well as about the photographic technology and process employed.  But, as much as we might scrutinize a photograph, looking for clues about the stories of its subjects, there are times when we do not, perhaps cannot, know the narrative surrounding the image captured there.  That may be particularly true of the “orphaned” photographs, those with limited or no context such as many of those that have come down to us from the early decades of photography.  Yet, with research and a touch of luck, there are those moments when we fashion a true narrative or, at least, parts of one.

This post is about two photographs from the 19th century.  The first, from the 1840s, depicts a geologic formation with two people standing before it; their backs are to us.  Though we apparently know little about the two people, certainly not their identities, there is recent speculation that the woman in the photograph may be Mary Anning, the renowned amateur paleontologist whose skill at finding fossils in the cliffs in the Lyme Regis area of England was unparalleled.  Of this photograph, I fear, we seem to be creating a narrative, almost out of whole cloth.

The second photograph, probably from the very early 1870s, is of a seated young man and, as far as I know, he and his narrative have nothing to do with natural history.  There is, indeed, a true and moving, albeit very incomplete, storyline emerging from it, though not from the image itself but from the inscription on the back.

As luck would have it, I’d been working for several weeks on the photograph I own, that of the young man, when I read of the speculation that Mary Anning might possibly be shown in the other.  My experience in trying to piece together a narrative for the subject of my photograph colors my evaluation of the work being done on the “Anning” photograph.

Where’s Mary?

On August 21, 2013, in a science blog, The H Word, on The Guardian newspaper website, Suzanne Pilaar Birch, a postdoc in archaeology at Brown University, discussed this photograph titled The Geologists which was made circa 1843 by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the true pioneers of photography.  (Birch, Does this Photograph Show Mary Anning?)

This is a salt print, so-called because the paper used was sensitized with different salts, principally salts of silver.  Its full title is The Geologists, Chudleigh, Devon.  The image I have included here was downloaded from the Science Museum Group with a credit line to The National Media Museum, Bradford.

[Later edit:  In the original post, I mistakenly gave the title as The Geologists, Chudleigh, Dorset.  Locating the photograph in Dorset, not Devon, is an error that Birch also made in her article.  See the initial comment below.]

Birch asks of this photograph, “Could it show Anning?”

For those studying the role of women in science, it’s no wonder that Mary Anning has a particularly strong attraction.  She was responsible for amazing fossil finds; many of the leading scientists reached out to her, if only to secure specimens; she built an expertise through experience, reading, communication, and determination; and she aspired to enter the male dominated science community but gender and social status worked effectively against her.

Birch asserts that she has assembled bits of what she calls “tantalizing evidence” that raise the possibility that the woman in this picture might be Anning.

The location, Chudleigh, Devon, is relatively close to Anning's territory.  Then there’s the woman’s clothing which Birch asserts “looks strikingly similar to that in Anning’s portrait.”  The blog post links to a Wikipedia site showing a painting by an unknown artist of Anning and her dog Tray.

(This image was obtained from Wikipedia which asserts that it is in the public domain.  The portrait is in the Natural History Museum, London.)

Further, Birch finds it telling that the photograph is dated at about 1843, because in that year the photographer William Henry Fox Talbot received correspondence from geologist Henry de la Beche, president of the British Geological Survey, who wanted to use Talbot's techniques to photograph geological subjects.  That de la Beche was an Anning intimate (probably not in that way) prompts Birch to wonder, “Could the woman be Anning and the man de la Beche?”

I am struck by Birch’s general eagerness to speculate about this photograph with evidence that is slim indeed.  The location isn’t Lyme Regis or, if I can go by the full title, not even in the immediate area – if it were identified as being taken in Lyme Regis, the case, such as it is, might have some life.

The clothing as some kind of possible proof can be discounted given that Mary Anning was certainly not the only woman in all of Britain at the time who dressed in that fashion.  Further, the painting shows Anning’s dog Tray, lying at her feet.  This suggests the portrait may have been painted before 1833, the year in which Tray was killed in a landslip at Lyme Regis.  That a decade or more may separate the portrait from the photograph would also seem to undercut the relevance of what Birch calls the striking similarity in what the woman in both pictures is shown to be wearing.

The correspondence between Talbot and de la Beche doesn’t fare much better.  I have not read letters between the two of them; it is interesting that there aren’t any such missives in the online collection of The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot hosted by De Montfort University, Leicester.  Nevertheless, I have read two letters on the site written by physician William Snow Harris to Talbot in which Harris acted as a go-between, trying to gain Talbot’s approval for use of his photographic techniques by de la Beche’s Geological Survey.  In one letter, dated February 24, 1843, Harris noted that de la Beche “wishes for permission to use it [Talbot’s photographic process] for the purpose of taking pictures of Organic remains procured in the Ordnance Geological Survey of Gt Britain to be engraved in the best style for a national work on British Organic remains . . . .”  Though “organic remains” certainly included fossils, it’s not clear what de la Beche really had in mind.  Even if, as Birch recounts, Talbot and de la Beche became friends, I am puzzled why she doesn’t offer any evidence that Talbot actually agreed to the proposal.  If he did, what did he agree to do?  Would that have necessarily entailed making photographs like the one in question?  I don’t know and, presumably, neither does Birch.

Finally, the title given the photograph (by Talbot?) may be carrying inordinate weight in the conjecturing over this image.  The title, The Geologists, qua title, seems to be taken by some as proof that the two people shown were indeed serious geologists.  But I’m not so certain that has to be the case.  For instance, I recently came across a reproduction of a daguerreotype stereoview (a card with two images set side by side that, when placed in a viewer, produces a three dimensional image), dated circa 1850 and titled The Painter.  It depicts a woman seated at a table; she is holding brushes and paints, and a painting in progress is propped up on the table before her.  (Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography, 1982, p. 271.)  Should I assume, based on the title, that she is a serious painter, someone I should know?  Or did the title simply describe the role she is playing, that is, what she is doing (or pretending to do) and what she might aspire to be?  So, too, with The Geologists – important geologists or just a representation of geologists?

So, why are we having this conversation about this photograph?  The draw of Mary Anning may explain a great deal.  Unfortunately, the evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the woman in the photograph is Mary Anning strikes me as less than underwhelming, but, because we may be unlikely to ever disprove it, it seems to have life.  Perhaps this is one of those hypotheses that is “not even wrong,” to quote physicist Wolfgang Pauli.  (For some background on this comment of Pauli's, see Oliver Burkeman's wonderful piece Not Even Wrong, The Guardian, September 18, 2005.)

Narrative Told By A Carte de Visite

And then there is the photograph, a carte de visite, I was working on when the Anning discussion surfaced.  My effort to build a narrative around its subject has had only limited success, but the experience offers a telling counterpoint to the guesswork now surrounding the “Anning” photograph.

The carte de visite (CDV), as a photographic format and technique, came into being in 1854 when Frenchman André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri created and named it.  In relatively short order, these small photographs, printed on albumen-treated paper and mounted on 2 ½ x 4 inch cards, became wildly popular.  Even though photography was just in its infancy, CDVs were produced and purchased on an extraordinary scale.  According to William Darrah, 300 to 400 million CDVs were sold annually in England during the first half of the 1860s.  In this same period in the U.S., during the Civil War, soldiers and their families turned in great numbers to the CDV in order to record, keep, and share images of their loved ones.  By the early 1880s, the CDV’s popularity had faded, but many of these photographs, today verging on a century and a half old, have not.

This summer, among an antique dealer’s photographic wares, I found this CDV.

The young man is a presence to be sure, intense and brooding.  Yes, I have to admit that stern expressions mark most CDVs (I suspect past experience with long exposure times and the need to stay still is partly responsible for such expressions, even if CDVs, under some circumstances, might need only a few seconds of exposure).  Despite that, there is something about his resolute look.  I am taken by the lock of hair that been deliberately flared out, and how he’s trying to fill that outsized coat.  I suppose based on just what’s shown in the photograph, I could guess about this young man and his story, offer up a hypothesis or two.

But I don’t need to do that.  Here is the back of the CDV:

And here’s my transcription of this note:

Miss Sarah Arthion
A Keepsake
                                                       From her Brother
                                                                            Winfield Arthion
                                                       Before his Death

                                                       < ? > Died On the Second of October –
                                                           At the age of 18 years and 6 Months

A tragically early death.  Did Sarah write this note?  Yes, I think so.  That makes most sense to me.  Since this specific CDV is the keepsake, who else would write on it?

How close to Winfield’s death was the photo taken?  Very close, I believe, since he looks to be in his late teens in the CDV.

I have learned that Winfield's story is part of the larger narrative that is the movement west during the 19th century in this country.  It includes pioneer families, as well as single young men, moving west in pursuit of work and land; among its participants are teenage brides and mothers, and, yes, early death in childhood.

From what is readily available on the web (an uncommon last name certainly helps), a few elements of the narrative that embraces this photograph can be moved into place, though, sadly, I still really have little to work with.  I have a modicum of confidence that Winfield and Sarah were among the children of Bradley Carter Arthion and Martha Ann Harvey.  Winfield came to the Washington Territory with his father and the rest of the family, presumably from Iowa, where Sarah had been born.  Winfield died on October 2, 1871 and is buried in the Stubblefield Cemetery in Walla Walla County, Washington.  (I have relied on the description of the Stubblefield Cemetery posted on for the date of his death.)  If the inscription on the CDV is correct (and it does match the life span engraved on his headstone), then he was born about March, 1853.  That’s unfortunately what little I know specifically of Winfield.

What about Sarah Arthion?  Ah, that part of this story has some additional chapters to it.  She was born on April 26, 1857, in Iowa.  As already noted, by not later than 1871, her father and the rest of the family had migrated further west to the Washington Territory.  On April 7, 1873, when she was just shy of 16 years of age, Sarah married 36 year old farmer Peter J. Strahm, who had come west as a single man around 1870 from Winesburg, Ohio.  Strahm had claimed 160 acres of land which he was farming just outside of Dixie, Washington.  Sarah and Peter had eight children.  As far as I can tell, they lived on, and worked, the farm until Peter passed away on February 28, 1922 at age 85; Sarah died shortly thereafter, on June 25, at age 65.  ( provides a listing of individuals buried in the Dixie Cemetery in Walla Walla County, Washington, which includes Peter and Sarah, though her first name is listed as “Arah”.)

Of Peter Strahm and farming, W.D. Lyman, in his An Illustrated History of Walla Walla County, State of Washington (1901), observed, “Prosperity attended his efforts from the very beginning:  he soon became a leader among the agriculaturists of his section, and he has continued to occupy a position of prominence among them ever since.” (p. 395)  Sarah Arthion, Lyman noted, came from “an old and respected pioneer family.”

There’s a bit more.  In 1989, the Strahm/Mason farm was recognized as one of the Washington State’s centennial farms, farms that had remained in the same families for 100 years or more, that is, since Washington had entered the United States as a state.  In 1889, the farm raised wheat, barley, corn, hay; its livestock included horses and cows. (Washington State Department of Agriculture, Washington’s Centennial Farms:  Yesterday and Today, October 1989, p. 97.  A link to the publication is provided at the bottom of this page on the State Department of Agriculture's website.)

This is certainly an incomplete narrative, built upon the inscription on the back of the CDV.  Yet, it has the virtue of being true, grounded in fact.  I am trying not to claim more than there is to be claimed.
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