Rush, Benjamin

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Rush, Benjamin

RUSH, BENJAMIN. (1746–1813). Physician, Signer. Pennsylvania. Six years after graduating from Princeton, he entered the University of Edinburgh to complete his medical studies. In June 1768 he received his medical degree and went to London for intern training. At Edinburgh and London he showed a lively interest in what would later be called social science. Young Dr. Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769 and soon was appointed professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, the first such chair established in America. He also built up a successful medical practice and found time to associate with such Patriot leaders as Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. In London he had been on friendly terms with Benjamin Franklin. In June 1776 he took a leading part in the movement toward independence, and the next month he became a delegate to the Continental Congress. He signed the Declaration of Independence on 2 August 1776.

Rush had volunteered in 1775 for service in the army, and he may have been an army surgeon in 1775–1776. On 11 April 1777 he became surgeon general of the Middle Department. His military career was brief. Not finding the administration of the medical service to his liking, he charged Dr. William Shippen with inefficiency, but a congressional investigation upheld Shippen. Dr. Rush then concluded that Washington's handling of military matters was unsatisfactory. After helping start what became known as the Conway Cabal, Rush wrote Patrick Henry anonymously from Yorktown on 12 January 1778 to recommend that Washington be replaced by Gates or Conway. Governor Henry forwarded the letter to Washington; the latter recognized Rush's excellent penmanship and confronted him with this evidence of personal disloyalty. Rush resigned on 30 April 1778.

Returning to his practice, Rush became a surgeon at the Pennsylvania Hospital, a position he held until his death. He specialized in care for mentally ill patients and became known as the "father of American psychiatry." He established the first free dispensary in America (1786), became president of the country's first antislavery society, demanded penal reforms, advocated the abolition of capital punishment, and supported free public education. He was responsible for the establishment of Dickinson College (1783). In the political arena he urged acceptance of the federal Constitution and was rewarded by President Adams with the post of treasurer of the U.S. Mint (1797–1813). In the field of medicine he developed a revolutionary "system" that, in simplest terms, was built around the hypothesis that all diseases resulted from too much or too little nervous stimulation and that all could be treated the same way: by drastic bleeding draining up to four-fifths of the patient's blood) and purging. This approach was soon condemned as idiotic, and it is fortunate that Rush lacked either the time or the inclination to test his hypothesis.

Rush is credited with pioneering in a number of medical fields, including experimental physiology, dental decay, and veterinary training. His medical essays earned literary distinction.

SEE ALSO Conway Cabal.


Binger, Carl. Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746–1813. New York: Norton, 1966.

D'Elia, Donald J. Benjamin Rush, Philosopher of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1974.

Hawke, David F. Benjamin Rush, Revolutionary Gadfly. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

                            revised by Harry M. Ward

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