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Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush was born to John and Susanna Harvey Rush on December 24, 1745. The family, which included seven children, lived on a plantation in Byberry, near Philadelphia. When Benjamin was five his father died, leaving his mother to care for the large family. At age eight the young boy was sent to live with an aunt and uncle so as to receive a proper education; he went on to study at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) and received his bachelor's degree from that institution in 1760. Upon returning to Philadelphia, Rush studied medicine under Dr. John Redman from 1761 until 1766, when he departed for Scotland to finish his studies at the University of Edinburgh. Receiving his medical degree in June 1768, Rush traveled on to London to further his training at St. Thomas's Hospital.

Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769 and started practicing medicine while also serving as the professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia. He wrote treatises on medical procedure, politics, and abolition, and he helped establish the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. His writings on the crisis brewing between the colonies and Britain brought him into associations with such leaders as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. At the outbreak of war, Rush joined the continental army as a surgeon and physician.

In June 1776, Rush was appointed to the Provincial Conference, and then to the Continental Congress a month later, and thus he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Returning to the war effort, Rush was appointed Surgeon-General of the continental army in April 1777; he did not remain so for long, however. He was appalled by the deplorable conditions in which he found the medical service, and consequently became embroiled with George Washington and one of his old teachers, Dr. William Shippen, in accusations of poor management. When Washington and Congress sided with the older Shippen, Rush resigned his commission in protest. The incident led him to express his doubts about the commander-in-chief in a letter to Patrick Henry, which found its way back to Washington, thus ending Rush's military career.

Rush returned to his practice in Philadelphia in 1778. Two years later he began to lecture at the new University of the State of Pennsylvania. He continued to write prolifically on the subject of medicine and medical practice and developed a reputation as a man of letters as well as medicine. In 1783 Rush joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital and actively served there until his death. While teaching at the University and serving at the Hospital, Rush furthered his republican ideas regarding universal education and health care. He advocated prison reform, the abolition of slavery and capital punishment, temperance, and better treatment of mental illness. He also believed in creating a better system of schools on every level so that all children, girls as well as boys, could receive the benefits of a proper education; his dream included the creation of a national university.

It was this idealistic view of education that prompted Rush to envision a college in Carlisle, then the edge of the frontier, as the first building block of this great system. Learning of the plan to expand the Carlisle Grammar School into an academy, Rush gained the confidence of one of the trustees, Colonel John Montgomery, and proceeded to convince the other eight board members that a college was the better idea. Rush succeeded in garnering support from John Dickinson, then president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. As a tribute to Dickinson's accomplishments, Rush suggested naming the college in honor of the famous statesman. Rush served as one of the most influential trustees of the College from its founding until his death, though some charge that in his later years he abandoned active stewardship of the college for other interests.

Through his medical practice, lectures, and various writings, Rush gained a reputation as one of the leading physicians and medical theorists in the new nation. He was a pioneer in physiology and psychiatry. Rush solidified this reputation through his role in the terrible yellow fever epidemic that swept Philadelphia in 1793. He remained in the city and tended to the thousands stricken with the disease, utilizing his practice of "depleting" (i.e. bleeding, purging). Although thoroughly schooled in "nosology," the principle that humors and solids controlled the health of a person, Rush firmly believed that diseases resulted from over- or under-stimulation of the nervous system, to which remedies of depletion or stimulation were to be applied accordingly. Unfortunately for Rush (and for his patients as well), depletion more often than not removed too much blood from the body, ending in death. As a consequence, his critics condemned his theories as dangerous and overzealous. When Rush's procedures did work, he had not gathered enough solid data to justify his practice, and his critics had the mortality statistics to prove their claims. Undaunted, he continued to write and lecture passionately on his system for the rest of his life. His influence on American medicine remained unchallenged for decades after his death until new practices, largely from Paris, made their inroads.

Rush had briefly reentered the realm of politics in 1787 to advocate the ratification of the federal constitution. His actions led to an appointment to the ratifying convention for the state. Two years later, along with fellow Dickinson College trustee James Wilson, he helped to secure a less radical and more effective constitution. As a result of Rush's lifelong patriotism and commitment to the American cause, President John Adams appointed him treasurer of the United States Mint, a post he occupied from 1797 until his death.

On January 11, 1776, Rush married Julia Stockton, the eldest daughter of Richard Stockton of Princeton. The couple had thirteen children, nine of whom would survive their father. Benjamin Rush died rather suddenly at his home on April 19, 1813 at the age of 67 and was buried at Christ's Church in Philadelphia.

Please visit the following link for materials authored by Benjamin Rush maintained in the Their Own Words database:

Rush, Benjamin, 1745-1813.

Researched, authored, and edited by John Osborne, Ph. D., and James Gerencser.

Page created: July 9, 2003                                            close window