Benjamin Rush, January 4, 1746 - April 19, 1813
Rush was a Founding Father of the United States. Rush lived in the state of Pennsylvania and was a physician, writer, educator, humanitarian, as well as the founder of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence and attended the Continental Congress. He served as Surgeon General in the Continental army, and was blamed for criticizing George Washington. Later in life, Rush became a professor of chemistry, medical theory, and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite having a wide influence on the development of American government, he is not as widely known as many of his American contemporaries. Rush was also an early opponent of slavery and capital punishment.
Benjamin Rush was born to John and Susanna Harvey Rush on January 4, 1746 (December 24, 1745 O.S.). The family which included seven children lived on a plantation in the Township of Byberry in Philadelphia County, then about 14 miles outside Philadelphia (the township was incorporated into Philadelphia in 1854 and now remains one of its neighborhoods). Rush’s father died when he was six, leaving his mother to care for the large family. At eight years of age, Benjamin was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, to receive a proper education. Benjamin and his older brother Jacob (b. 1738) attended a school in Cecil County, Maryland, run by the Rev. Samuel Finley, which would later become West Nottingham Academy.
In 1760, after further studies at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Rush graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. From 1761 to 1766, Rush apprenticed under Dr. John Redman in Philadelphia. Redman encouraged him to further his studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where Rush studied from 1766 to 1768 and earned a medical degree. Rush became fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish as a result of his studies and European tour. Returning to the Colonies in 1769 (age 24), Rush opened a medical practice in Philadelphia and became Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Rush ultimately published the first American textbook on chemistry, several volumes on medical student education, and wrote influential patriotic essays.
Rush was active in the Sons of Liberty and was elected to attend the provincial conference to send delegates to the Continental Congress. Thomas Paine consulted Rush when writing the profoundly influential pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense. Rush represented Pennsylvania and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also represented Philadelphia at Pennsylvania’s own Constitutional Convention, and got into trouble when he criticized the new Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.
While Rush was representing Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress (and serving on its Medical Committee), he also used his medical skills in the field. Rush accompanied the Philadelphia militia during the battles after which the British occupied Philadelphia and most of New Jersey and the Continental Congress fled to York, Pennsylvania. The Army Medical Service was in disarray, between the military casualties, extremely high losses due to typhoid, yellow fever and other camp illnesses, political conflicts between Dr. John Morgan and Dr. William Shippen, Jr., and inadequate supplies and guidance from the Medical Committee. Nonetheless, Rush accepted an appointment as surgeon-general of the middle department of the Continental Army. Dr. Rush’s order “Directions for preserving the health of soldiers” became one of the foundations of preventative military medicine and was repeatedly republished, including as late as 1908. However, Rush’s reporting of Dr. Shippen’s misappropriation of food and wine supplies intended to comfort hospitalized soldiers, under-reporting of patient deaths, and failure to visit the hospitals under his command, ultimately led to Rush’s resignation in 1778.
Rush criticized General George Washington in two handwritten but unsigned letters while still serving under the Surgeon General. One, to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry dated January 12, 1778, quoted General Thomas Conway saying that if not for God’s grace the ongoing war would have been lost by Washington and his weak counselors. Henry forwarded the letter to Washington, despite Rush’s request that the criticism be conveyed orally, and Washington recognized the handwriting. At the time, the Conway Cabal was trying to replace Washington with Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief. The letter also relayed General Sullivan’s criticism that forces directly under Washington were undisciplined and mob-like, and contrasted Gates’ army as “a well-regulated family”. Ten days later, Rush wrote John Adams relaying complaints inside Washington’s army, including about “bad bread, no order, universal disgust” and praising Conway, who had been appointed Inspector General.
Shippen sought Rush’s resignation, and received it by the end of the month after Continental Congress delegate John Witherspoon, chairman of a committee to investigate Morgan’s and Rush’s charges of misappropriation and mismanagement against Shippen, told Rush his complaints would not produce reform. Rush later expressed regret for his gossip against Washington. In a letter to John Adams in 1812, Rush wrote, “He [Washington] was the highly favored instrument whose patriotism and name contributed greatly to the establishment of the independence of the United States.” Rush also successfully pleaded with Washington’s biographers Judge Bushrod Washington and Chief Justice John Marshall to delete his association with those stinging words
In 1783 he was appointed to the staff of Pennsylvania Hospital, of which he remained a member until his death.
He was elected to the Pennsylvania convention which adopted the Federal constitution and was appointed treasurer of the U.S. Mint, serving from 1797-1813.
He became Professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania in 1791, though the quality of his medicine was quite primitive even for the time: he advocated bleeding (for almost any illness) long after its practice had declined. He became a social activist, an abolitionist, and was the most well-known physician in America at the time of his death. He was also founder of the private liberal arts college Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1794, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Rush was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (known today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society), which greatly influenced the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
In 1766 when Rush set out for his studies in Edinburgh, he was outraged by the sight of 100 slave ships in Liverpool harbor. As a prominent Presbyterian doctor and professor of chemistry in Philadelphia, he provided a bold and respected voice against the slave trade that could not be ignored.
The highlight of his involvement in abolishing slavery might be the pamphlet he wrote that appeared in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in 1773 entitled “An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping.” In this first of his many attacks on the social evils of his day, he not only assailed the slave trade, but the entire institution of slavery. Dr. Rush argued scientifically that Negroes were not by nature intellectually or morally inferior. Any apparent evidence to the contrary was only the perverted expression of slavery, which “is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it.” (Dolbeare & Cummings 2010: 44).
“In 1792 Dr Benjamin Rush, one of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the USA, presented a paper before the American Philosophical Society which argued that the ‘color’ and ‘figure’ of blacks were derived from a form of leprosy. He was convinced that with proper treatment, blacks could be cured (i.e. become white) and eventually… assimilated into the general population” He thought that their skin color and hair difference meant they were diseased. (Omi & Winant 1986: 148). Omi, M. and H. Winant (1986). Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1980s. New York; London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Despite his public condemnations of slavery, Dr. Rush purchased a slave named William Grubber in 1776. To the consternation of many, Dr. Rush still owned Grubber when he joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1784.
Dr. Rush firmly believed in bleeding patients (a practice now known to be generally harmful), as well as purges using calomel and other toxic substances. In his report on the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Rush wrote: “I have found bleeding to be useful, not only in cases where the pulse was full and quick, but where it was slow and tense. I have bled twice in many, and in one acute case four times, with the happiest effect. I consider intrepidity in the use of the lancet, at present, to be necessary, as it is in the use of mercury and jalap, in this insidious and ferocious disease.” During that epidemic, Rush gained acclaim for remaining in town and treating sometimes 100 patients per day (some through free black volunteers coordinated by Richard Allen), but many died. Even Rush acknowledged the failure of two treatments, sweats in vinegar-wrapped blankets accompanied by mercury rubs, and cold baths.
William Cobbett vociferously objected to Rush’s extreme use of bloodletting, and even in Rush’s day and location, many doctors had abandoned on scientific grounds this favorite remedy of Rush’s former teachers Thomas Sydenham and Hermann Boerhaave. Cobbett accused Rush of killing more patients than he had saved. Rush ultimately sued Cobbett for libel, winning a judgment of $5000 and $3000 in court costs, which was only partially paid before Cobbett returned to England. Nonetheless, Dr. Rush’s practice waned as he continued to advocate bloodletting and purges, much to the chagrin of his friend Thomas Jefferson. Some even blamed Rush’s bleeding for hastening the death of Benjamin Franklin, as well as George Washington (although the only one of Washington’s doctors who opposed the bleeding was Rush’s former student), and Rush insisted upon being bled himself shortly before his death (as he had during the yellow fever epidemic two decades earlier).
Rush also wrote the first case report on dengue fever (published in 1789 on a case from 1780). However, his greatest contributions to physical medicine now appear to have been his establishment of a public dispensary for low-income patients, and public works associated with draining and rerouting Dock Creek (eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, which greatly decreased typhus, typhoid and cholera outbreaks).
Another of Rush’s medical views that now draws criticism is his analysis of race. In reviewing the case of Henry Moss, a slave who lost his dark skin color (probably through vitiligo), Rush characterized being black as a hereditary and curable skin disease (called “negroidism”). Rush wrote that “Whites should not tyrannize over [blacks], for their disease should entitle them to a double portion of humanity. However, by the same token, whites should not intermarry with them, for this would tend to infect posterity with the ‘disorder’… attempts must be made to cure the disease.”
Rush is considered the “Father of American Psychiatry”, publishing the first textbook on the subject in the United States, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (1812). He undertook to classify different forms of mental illness and to theorize as to their causes and possible cures. Rush believed (incorrectly) that many mental illnesses were caused by disruptions of the blood circulation, or by sensory overload, and treated them with devices meant to improve circulation to the brain such as a centrifugal spinning board, and inactivity/sensory deprivation via a restraining chair with a sensory-deprivation head enclosure (”Tranquilizer Chair”). After seeing mental patients in appalling conditions in the Pennsylvania Hospital, Rush led a successful campaign in 1792 for the state to build a separate mental ward where the patients could be kept in more humane conditions.
While Dr Rush was uncertain what to do for the mentally ill, he knew that chains and dungeons (the practice of the time) were not the answer. He took patients from that drudgery and placed them in a “normal” hospital setting. This alone resulted in a number of patients recovering sufficiently to return to society. For this reason his approach is officially referred to as the Moral Therapy.
Rush is sometimes considered a pioneer of occupational therapy particularly as it pertains to the institutionalized. Furthermore, Rush was one of the first people to describe Savant Syndrome. In 1789 he described the abilities of Thomas Fuller, a lightning calculator. His observation would later be described in other individuals by notable scientists like John Langdon Down.
Rush pioneered the therapeutic approach to addiction. Prior to his work, drunkenness was viewed as being sinful and a matter of choice. Rush believed that the alcoholic loses control over himself and identified the properties of alcohol, rather than the alcoholic’s choice, as the causal agent. He developed the conception of alcoholism as a form of medical disease and proposed that alcoholics should be weaned from their addiction via less potent substances.
In honor of his service to mental health, the American Psychiatric Association uses Dr. Rush’s image as part of their seal.
During his career, he educated over 3000 medical students, and several of these established Rush Medical College (Chicago) in his honor after his death. One of his last apprentices was Samuel A. Cartwright, later a Confederate States of America surgeon charged with improving sanitary conditions in the camps around Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, formerly Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, was named in his honor.
After dying of typhus fever, he was buried (in Section N67) along with his wife Julia in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, not far from where Benjamin Franklin is buried. At the site, you will see a small plaque honoring Benjamin Rush.
Read more about Benjamin Rush here.