Born December 24, 1745
Died April 19, 1813
Physician, educator, writer, reformer, political leader
"The American war is over: but that is far from the case with the American Revolution."
Asigner of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush was the best known medical man of his day and the first to also gain a reputation as a writer. A driving force in the fields of American politics and education, he was a vigorous enemy of slavery and capital punishment and was also noted for his enlightened treatment of the mentally ill.
Born in Pennsylvania in late 1745, Benjamin Rush was only six years old when his father died. His mother then opened a grocery store to support her seven children. At age eight, Rush studied at a school in Maryland run by his uncle, Samuel Finley. The boy made such rapid progress that he entered college only five years later.
In 1760, at age fifteen, Rush graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Samuel Finley urged his nephew to become a medical doctor. In 1761, Rush went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and for six years studied medicine with Dr. John Redmond. Next he traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, then the world's leading center of medical knowledge, where he earned a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1768.
Rush then worked in hospitals in London, England, and Paris, France. He was a well-dressed young man of medium height and build, with piercing blue eyes, a hooked nose, and a broad forehead. An energetic, confident person, he attracted people to him. In Europe, he met and became friends with the American statesman Benjamin Franklin see entry and many well-known British writers and thinkers of the time. Rush became known for his interest in what is today called social science, the study of society and how people relate to it.
In his book Revolutionary Doctor, Carl Binger, M.D., pointed out that early in Rush's life he determined to devote himself to the good of mankind. Binger described the physician as "an unusually [handsome] man with energy and charm, a little deficient in humor and a little vain, but with warmth and affection and a capacity for sincere relationships."
Writes textbook, marries, attends Continental Congress
In 1769, at age twenty-three, Rush returned to America and accepted an appointment at what is now the University of Pennsylvania as the first chemistry professor in the United States. In 1770, he published the first American chemistry textbook.
In 1775, while visiting in Princeton, New Jersey, Rush met sixteen-year-old Julia Stockton. A year later, the two began their thirty-seven-year marriage that produced thirteen children, though only nine survived to adulthood. The couple was devoted to one another, and Rush frequently shared his personal and professional problems with his calm and loyal wife. Their son, Richard Rush, was later to serve as an advisor and ambassador for four U.S. presidents.
Within several months of his 1776 marriage, the thirty-year-old physician was appointed a representative from Pennsylvania to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There, men from the American colonies met to decide their country's future after years of objecting to British taxation policies. Benjamin Rush had become well known for his 1775 essay, On Patriotism, in which he protested the Tea Act. This act was passed by England to provide cheap tea for the colonists in exchange for America's acceptance of England's right to place new taxes on the colonies.
About this situation, Rush had written that if the English were permitted to sell the cheap tea in the colonies, "Then farewell American liberty!" He warned that the chests of tea to be sold "contain something worse than death—the seed of SLAVERY. Remember, my countrymen, the present era … will fix the constitution of America forever. Think of your ancestors."
While serving in the Congress, Rush became friends with patriots John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine (see entries). At Rush's urging, Paine wrote the famous pamphlet Common Sense to encourage Americans to declare their independence from England. Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by Congress in Philadelphia in 1776.
Resigns army position
In 1777 and 1778, Rush served as a Surgeon General in the Continental army. But before long he had a dispute with his superior and former professor, Dr. William Shippen. Rush was angry about the dreadful conditions that existed in army hospitals at the time. When the problem did not improve over time, he sent a letter to General George Washington see entry, accusing Dr. Shippen of poor management. Washington passed the letter on to Congress, which investigated the matter and ruled in favor of Shippen. The infuriated Rush then resigned his surgeon general position in April 1778.
Rush also was part of the Conway Cabal, part of a secret plot to replace George Washington as head of the Continental army. After visiting Washington's military camp shortly after the beginning of the Revolutionary War (1775–83), Rush wrote an unsigned letter to patriot Patrick Henry in which he stated that Washington was a weak general and should be replaced by American General Horatio Gates or Major General Thomas Conway. Also taking part in the efforts to have Washington removed from office were Samuel Adams (see entries), Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Mifflin. Rush's letter was sent on to George Washington, who confronted the physician after recognizing his fine handwriting. Almost at once, Rush resigned from the military.
In later years, Rush expressed his regret for his involvement in the plot, and he supported Washington's being elected the first president of the United States in 1789. However, according to historian David Freeman Hawke in Benjamin Rush, Revolutionary Gadfly, within the first year of Washington's presidency, Rush feared that "the principles of the revolution were being plowed under" and that a strong central government was becoming controlled by wealthy Americans to further their own interests. Discouraged by politics, Rush concentrated in the latter part of his life on medicine and matters of social reform.
A busy career
In 1780, Rush began lecturing to college students and returned to working as a physician. He set up his own medical practice and served on the part-time medical staff of Pennsylvania Hospital for the rest of his life. He was dedicated to both teaching his students in lecture class and providing one-on-one training to a much smaller group that attended him as he treated his patients at the hospital. There, in 1786, he founded the first free medical clinic in the United States for the relief of poor people, and he worked at the facility for many years without pay.
In 1789, Rush was appointed head of the department of the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the College of Philadelphia. Two years later, when the institution became the University of Pennsylvania, the physician-patriot helped organize its medical school, where he taught for many years.
Studies yellow fever; serves U.S. government
Rush wielded great influence in the medical community during and after revolutionary times, but he embraced some ideas that caused much disagreement. He believed that all diseases were caused by the "excitability of blood vessels" and could be cured by bloodletting, a process by which the blood was drained from the patient's body (see box).
In the second half of the eighteenth century, there were frequent outbreaks of diseases, such as yellow fever, in the eastern United States. From 1793 to 1805, dangerous epidemics plagued Philadelphia. Rush worked heroically with the victims when most other people had fled to the safety of the countryside. Unfortunately, bloodletting, his treatment of choice, proved to be very ineffective in helping his patients.
But Rush also had some good ideas for treating patients, which he described in his book published in 1794, An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever. Rush went against the medical thinking of his time by proposing the advanced idea that unsanitary conditions had largely contributed to the spread of yellow fever. Rush is credited for his innovations in a number of other fields as well, including the study of dental decay and veterinary training (the study of the medical treatment of animals).
In 1797, President John Adams appointed Rush Treasurer of the United States Mint, a post in which he served part-time until his death in 1813. President Thomas Jefferson later appointed him a scientific advisor for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–06), in which Americans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the country's western lands.
Promotes education, supports social reforms
Rush had a strong interest in education. He helped with the founding of Dickinson College and helped to manage the affairs of what became Franklin and Marshall College, both in the state of Pennsylvania. A believer in education for women, he was also a strong supporter of the Young Ladies Academy in Philadelphia, a school for girls. He also supported a system of free public schools, as well as promoting the idea of a national university for the United States that would teach only subjects connected to the study of government, including law, the principles of business, matters of war, and economics. But the idea was never put into action.
Rush also made efforts to help people he thought were discriminated against. Biographer Carl Binger wrote of him: "When [Rush] saw what he conceived to be an evil, he had to shout it down from the housetops, always with the hope—even the expectation—of its being immediately eradicated" or done away with.
As a social reformer, Rush wrote pamphlets attacking slavery, capital punishment (death administered by the state as punishment), war, and the use of tobacco and alcohol. In 1774, he helped found the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first U.S. antislavery society. He also served as its president.
Rush is known for his enlightened approach to the treatment of mental illness, from which his eldest and favorite son, John, suffered. Rush was before his time in realizing and teaching that some mental illnesses have physical causes. He spent many years working with mentally handicapped individuals, treating them with kindness and compassion. He helped to improve their living conditions and did away with the use of chains to keep them immobilized. He encouraged mental patients to listen to music, sew, garden, and exercise every day. In 1812, Rush published the first American book about the treatment of the mentally ill, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind.
Remembered after death
Rush lived out his final years recognized as one of the most accomplished Americans of his day. He died in Philadelphia on April 13, 1813, probably of pneumonia. He was buried at the city's Christ Church Burial Ground beside his mother and father and next to the future gravesite of his wife, who outlived him by more than thirty years. Shortly after Rush's death, Thomas Jefferson wrote of him in a letter to John Adams see entry: "a better man than Rush could not have left us, more benevolent [generous], more learned, of finer genius, or more honest."
In the centuries after his death, the contributions of Benjamin Rush to America's medical community were not forgotten. In 1837, several of Rush's former students founded Rush Medical College in Chicago, Illinois, naming it in his honor. In Philadelphia in 1965, the American Psychiatric Association placed a bronze plaque at his gravesite, honoring him as the "Father of American Psychiatry."
For More Information
Binger, Carl, M.D. Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746-1813. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1966.
Boatner, Mark M., III. "Rush, Benjamin." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 951-52.
D'Elia, Donald J. "Rush, Benjamin." Encyclopedia of American Biography, 2nd ed. Edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, pp. 969-70.
Hawke, David Freeman. Benjamin Rush, Revolutionary Gadfly. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1971.
Ford, Graham. "Phlebotomy: The Ancient Art of Bloodletting." Museum of Questionable Medical Devices [Online] Available http://www.mtn.org/quack/devices/phlebo.htm (accessed on 1/6/00).
Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978. [Online] Available http://mondrian.princeton.edu/CampusWWW (accessed on 6/8/99).
"Rush, Benjamin." AND Reference Data Ltd. and The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. Edited by J. S. Bowmen. Oxford, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995. [Online] Available http://search.biography.com/print_record.pl?id=19094 (accessed on 1/6/00).
Benjamin Rush learned about and began practicing bloodletting while in medical school in Scotland. Bloodletting is a process by which blood is drained from the body of a medical patient. From the fifth century through the mid-nineteenth century, many surgeons and barbers, who often served as medical men in the absence of doctors, routinely used bloodletting as a treatment to help cure patients of certain ailments. The method was commonly used for fevers, infections, and, strangely enough, even for excess bleeding.
Blood was drained from the patient's body using leeches (bloodsucking worms), medical instruments, or both. Doctors affixed leeches to the body by turning a wineglass full of the worms upside down on the affected part of the body. After the leech attached itself by biting, it could fill itself with half an ounce to an ounce of blood.
Blood could also be drained by making a number of incisions, or cuts, into the body. Blood was then caught in a shallow bowl. The procedure was stopped when the patient began to feel faint. From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, blood was caught in heated little glass cups. The warm air created a vacuum and made the blood flow into the cup. Rush sometimes tried to cure his patients by draining up to 80 percent of their blood.
Former president George Washington died from a throat infection in 1799, after a great deal of his blood had been drained from his body in less than twenty-four hours. Although bloodletting is no longer widely practiced today, leeches are still sometimes used to relieve blood congestion during certain operations.