Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. One of the lesser known of these was Benjamin Rush, a 31-year-old Philadelphia physician. Even though he was among the youngest of the signers, Rush had more wisdom, experience and vision than some of his elder signatories.
Born in January, 1746, Rush was only five when his father, a Pennsylvania blacksmith and farmer, died. His mother was impressed by Benjamin’s intelligence and enrolled him at Reverend Samuel Finley’s boarding school where he matriculated so quickly that at age 13 he entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). The young man graduated one year later and became an apprentice of John Redman, Philadelphia’s leading doctor.
In 1766, Rush left to further his education at the University of Edinburgh, the finest medical school in the British Empire. After three years, he returned to Philadelphia as a qualified doctor. He tried to attract paying patients, but his practice built so slowly that he found himself almost penniless. His appointment as Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia in 1769 when he was 23-years-old finally provided a stable income.
The eminent physician had a remarkable military career volunteering his medical skills during the Revolutionary War. He tended the wounded from the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1776, and Washington’s victory at Princeton the next day, plus four other revolutionary war battles. Within the year he was appointed Surgeon General of the Middle Division of the Continental Army. He prepared a pamphlet on battle field hygiene, “Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers” in which he argued “a greater proportion of men have perished with sickness in our armies than have fallen by the sword.” Throughout the war, the doctor encouraged significant hygienic changes in military clothes, food and field sanitation.
He and his wife Julia eventually had 13 children, many of whom died in infancy. Richard, the second son, served in cabinet positions in both the Madison and Monroe administrations. Another son, James, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a prominent physician.
Benjamin Rush advocated for humane treatment of those diagnosed as insane. He was the first U.S. doctor to treat mental illness as a disease rather than as criminal behavior. Typically, mentally ill patients were quartered out of sight in cells located in the damp basement of a hospital. They were often chained and shackled with only fetid straw for their bedding.
In 1810, tragically and ironically, his eldest son, John, also a doctor, was discharged from the Navy because of “mental derangement” after killing a fellow officer in a duel and then attempting to commit suicide. Rush sadly had to commit John to the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane, where he lived out his life.
Rush’s “Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind” was a pioneering study on mental illness; this cutting-edge research led to the practices of psychotherapy and occupational therapy as we know them today. Rush was named “Father of American Psychiatry” in 1812, a year before he died of typhus fever.
Rush used some traditional medical practices of the time: bloodletting, cupping and purging to rid patients of diseases. He was criticized for using these protocols during the Yellow Fever epidemic that ravaged Philadelphia in 1793 because these common procedures made patients weaker. After studying this disease that killed more than 5,000 Philadelphians in nine months, Rush determined Yellow Fever was linked to standing water, but he never made the connection that it was spread by mosquitoes.
Rush was a friend of African-Americans, believing in the equality of the races. He strongly opposed slavery and wrote tracts supporting abolition long before manumission was strongly supported in the northern states. When his Episcopal congregation began segregating parishioners, he raised funds to establish two African Methodist Episcopal Churches and attended the first worship service in each one.
Rush is also remembered for founding Dickinson College, for promoting the formal education of women and he was instrumental in the writing and publishing of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”.
This full length, well-researched and much needed biography is, to date, the definitive account of Benjamin Rush’s life. By studying Rush’s writings and historical information found in more than 1,000 private letters, Fried provides a new, revitalizing look at a much-studied period of United States history. One warning to the reader: Sometimes quotations from the original letters and articles are too long and encumber the flow of the narrative. Many of these passages could have been summarized or added to the notes so as to not disrupt the otherwise very readable text. My advice is to skim, but persist.