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Benjamin Rush

  Dr. Benjamin Rush (December 24 1745 – April 19 1813) was a Founding Father of the United States. Rush lived in the state of Pennsylvania and was a physician, writer, educator, and humanitarian, as well as the founder of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Rush was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and attended the Continental Congress. Later in life, he became a professor of 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.

Despite his great contributions to early American society, Rush is today most famous as the man who, in 1812, helped reconcile two of the largest minds of the early Republic: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Additional recommended knowledge



  Rush was born in the Township of Byberry in Philadelphia County, which was about 14 miles from the center of Philadelphia. The township was incorporated into Philadelphia in 1854, and now remains one of its neighborhoods. His father died when he was six, and Rush spent most of his early life with his maternal uncle, the Reverend Samuel Finley. He attended Finley's academy at Nottingham which would later become West Nottingham Academy.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and then obtained a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. While in Europe practicing medicine, he learned French, Italian, and Spanish. Returning to the Colonies in 1769, Rush opened a medical practice in Philadelphia and became Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia.

He published the first American textbook on Chemistry, several volumes on medical student education, and wrote influential patriotic essays. He was active in the Sons of Liberty and was elected to attend the provincial conference to send delegates to the Continental Congress. He consulted Thomas Paine on the writing of the profoundly influential pro-independence pamphlet, Common Sense. He was appointed to represent Pennsylvania and signed the Declaration of Independence.

In 1777 he became surgeon-general of the middle department of the Continental Army. Conflicts with the Army Medical service, specifically with Dr. William Shippen, Jr., led to Rush's resignation.

As General George Washington suffered a series of defeats in the war, Rush campaigned for his removal, as part of the Conway Cabal, losing his trust and ending Rush's war activities. Rush later expressed regret for his actions 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."

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.

The inscription on the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." was taken from a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800.

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.

Rush was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (known today as the Philadelphia Prison Society), which had great influence in the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.

Constitutional ideas

Rush believed that Americans should enshrine the right to medical freedom in their Constitution, much as the right to freedom of religion is expressly guaranteed in that document.

Rush is reported to have argued that "Unless we put Medical Freedom into the Constitution, the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship … to restrict the art of healing to one class of men, and deny equal privilege to others, will be to constitute the Bastille of Medical Science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a Republic … The Constitution of this Republic should make special privilege for Medical Freedom as well as Religious Freedom."

Also he urged Thomas Paine to write a book that strongly pushed revolution and suggested its title, "Common Sense"[citation needed].

Corps of discovery

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare for the Lewis and Clark Expedition under the tutelage of Rush, who taught Lewis about frontier illnesses and the performance of bloodletting. Rush provided the corps with a medical kit that included:

  • Turkish opium for nervousness
  • emetics to induce vomiting
  • medicinal wine
  • fifty dozen of Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills, laxatives containing more than 50% mercury, which the corps called "thunderclappers". Their meat-rich diet and lack of clean water during the expedition gave the men cause to use them frequently. Though their efficacy is questionable, their high mercury content provided an excellent tracer by which archaeologists have been able to track the corps' actual route to the Pacific.

Africans in America

In 1766 when Rush set out for his studies in Edinburgh, was outraged by the sight of 100 slave ships in Liverpool harbor.[1]

As a prominent Presbyterian doctor and professor of chemistry in Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush provided a bold and respected voice against 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."[citation needed]

Rush died in 1813, just as his former pupil, Charles Caldwell, was gaining national recognition for his theories on innate racial differences and the inferiority of Africans and their descendants - a position that Rush had spent much of his life attempting to disprove to a young America, paving the way for the eventual realization for mankind to surrender prejudice to the universal truth that "all men are created equal."[citation needed]

Controversial theories

Rush was an advocate of forced psychiatric treatment. According to psychiatry historian Thomas Szasz, one of Rush's favorite methods of treatment was to tie a patient to a board and spin it rapidly until all the blood went to the head.[2] He even placed his own son in one of his hospitals for 27 years, until he died. He was also an advocate of bloodletting.

Rush believed that being black was a hereditary illness, which he referred to as "negroidism". In an address to the American Philosophical Society, Rush said that the only evidence of a "cure" occurred when the skin color turned white. Rush drew the conclusion 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."

Contributions to medicine

  Rush was far ahead of his time in the treatment of mental illness. In fact, he 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).[3] Rush was also an advocate of insane asylums, believing that with proper treatment mental diseases could be cured. An Asylum was even constructed in the area of his birthplace (See Philadelphia State Hospital). The emblem of the American Psychiatric Association bears his portrait. According to Harry Levine, Benjamin Rush was also responsible for the invention of the idea of addiction.[4]

Prior to his work, drunkenness was viewed as being sinful and a matter of choice. Rush introduced the idea 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 addiction as a form of medical disease and finally developed the idea that abstinence is the only cure for addiction.[citation needed]

Rush is sometimes considered the father of therapeutic horticulture, particularly as it pertains to the institutionalized. In his book 'Medical Inquiries upon Diseases of the Mind' published in 1812 Rush wrote:

"It has been remarked, that the maniacs of the male sex in all hospitals, who assist in cutting wood, making fires, and digging in a garden, and the females who are employed in washing, ironing, and scrubbing floors, often recover, while persons, whose rank exempts them from performing such services, languish away their lives within the walls of the hospital".[citation needed]

Besides his contributions to psychiatry, Benjamin Rush wrote a descriptive account of the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793 (during which he treated up to 120 patients per day), and what is considered to be the first case report on dengue fever (published in 1789 on a case from 1780).[citation needed]

Rush lived during the Age of Heroic Medicine (1780-1850), and is considered a strong advocate of “heroic medicine”.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, formerly Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, was also named in his honor.

Religious views and vision

He is generally deemed Presbyterian and was a founder of the Philadelphia Bible Society.[5] He was an advocate for Christianity in public life and in particular in education. In line with that, he advocated Scriptures as a textbook in the public schools.[6]

That stated, he had Universalist leanings, as the following quote on education seems to imply.[7] It states, "Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place, is that of the New Testament."[8]

His religious views were influenced around 1780 by what he described as "Fletcher's controversy with the Calvinists in favor of the Universality of the atonement." After hearing Elhanan Winchester preach, Rush indicated that Winchester's theology "embraced and reconciled my ancient calvinistical, and my newly adopted (Arminian) principles. From that time on I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men." Rush did, however, believe in a state of punishment after death for the wicked, "and of long, long duration." In his later years, Rush, in a letter to John Adams, described his religious views as "a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches."[9]


  • Letters of Benjamin Rush, volume 1: 1761-1792 (1951), editor L.H. Butterfield, Princeton University Press
  • Essays: Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (1798) Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1989 reprint: Syracuse University Press, ISBN 0-912756-22-5, includes "A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States"
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His "Travels Through Life" Together with his Commonplace Book for 1789-1813, 1970 reprint: Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-83713037-9
  • Medical Inquiries And Observations Upon The Diseases Of The Mind, 2006 reprint: Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1-42862669-7
  • The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805-1813 (2001), Liberty Fund, ISBN 0-86597287-7
  • Benjamin Rush, M.D: A Bibliographic Guide (1996), Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-31329823-8
  • An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slave-keeping. Philadelphia: Printed by J. Dunlap, 1773.


  1. ^ "Dr. Benjamin Rush and the Negro", Donald J. D'Elia, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1969), pp. 413-422, doi:10.2307/2708566 University of Pennsylvania Press
  2. ^
  3. ^ Hellemans, Alexander; Bryan Bunch (1988). The Timetables of Science. New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, 261. ISBN 0671621300. 
  4. ^ Elster, Jon (1999), , MIT Press, pp. 131, ISBN 0262550369,
  5. ^
  6. ^ Signers of the Declaration (Benjamin Rush). U. S. National Park Service. Retrieved on 2007-12-13.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Benjamin Rush. Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Accessed Nov. 25, 2007.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Benjamin Rush
  • Levine, Harry G. "The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America." Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 1978; 15: pp: 493-506. Also available at:

Further reading

  • Brodsky, Alyn. Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician. New York: Truman Talley Books/St. Martin's Press, 2004.
  • David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.
  • Benjamin Rush at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
  • Article and portrait at "Discovering Lewis & Clark"
  • Benjamin Rush memorial at Find A Grave
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Benjamin_Rush". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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