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.