Physician, naturalist. Ravenel was born in Charleston on December 8, 1797, sixth of the nine children of the planter Daniel Ravenel and his wife, Catherine Prioleau. Little information exists on the early years and education of Ravenel, but it is known that he completed the medical program of the University of Pennsylvania and received the M.D. degree in 1819. Soon thereafter Ravenel established a medical practice in Charleston. On April 16, 1823, he married Charlotte Matilda Ford, who died three years later after giving birth to their only child. In 1829 Ravenel married Charlotte’s half sister, Louisa Catherine Ford, with whom he had seven children.
After helping to establish the Medical College of South Carolina in 1824, Ravenel served as its professor of chemistry and pharmacy and, later, as dean. Following a controversy over control of the institution, Ravenel participated in the formation of the Medical College of the State of South Carolina in 1834 and served on its faculty until 1835, when he moved to a plantation called the Grove, north of Charleston on the Cooper River. Although he was a highly successful planter, Ravenel became better known for his work in natural history.
Initially interested in fish, Ravenel soon turned his attention to conchology (the study of mollusks) and, later, to paleontology. In due course, he amassed a huge collection of mollusk shells, and in 1834 he published a catalog, or list, of his specimens, which included more than seven hundred living and fossil species and contained the first description of the lettered olive (Oliva sayana). Through exchanges, Ravenel also built a large collection of shells from elsewhere. By the 1840s he was collecting invertebrate marine fossils uncovered from marl beds on his plantation. Especially interested in fossil echinoderms, Ravenel discovered several species new to science. As he enhanced his reputation, he was called upon by some of the world’s most noted scientists, including Charles Lyell and Louis Agassiz.
During the 1850s Ravenel resumed his interest in shells and contributed several articles to scientific journals. By the outbreak of the Civil War, his collection included nearly 3,300 species of mollusk shells, and a noted American contemporary referred to Ravenel as a leading conchologist who possessed “a valuable cabinet, rich in marine and other species.” Eventually, Ravenel’s great collection went to the Charleston Museum, and it continues to be an important source for modern malacologists.
Meanwhile, Ravenel continued to practice medicine, mainly during the summers when he was at his home on Sullivan’s Island. During the 1850s he served as physician to the indigent on the island. A vigorous proponent of secession, Ravenel strongly defended the notion of states’ rights and the institution of slavery, but virtual blindness and advancing age prevented him from assisting the Confederacy. Although his record of scientific publications is comparatively modest, Ravenel did much to advance knowledge of conchology and paleontology in South Carolina, and he earned deserved recognition for his promotion of scientific research in the region. He died in Charleston on July 27, 1871, from injuries received from a fall down a staircase in his home.
Stephens, Lester D. Science, Race, and Religion in the American South: John Bachman and the Charleston Circle of Naturalists, 1815–1895. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.