December 24, 2012
Dr. Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the first Surgeon General of the Continental Army, helped establish five colleges, was America’s pre-eminent professor of medicine, helping to train over 3,000 medical students during his career, and helped heal the wounds that had divided former friends and presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
He has been called both the “father of American medicine” and the “the father of American psychiatry.”
Rush was born on Dec. 24, 1745, though his birthdate was adjusted when the British Parliament passed the Calendar Act of 1750, which forced the adoption of the Gregorian calendar over the Julian calendar. So in 1752, Rush’s birthday became Jan. 4. He was born in the Township of Byberry, County of Philadelphia (it became part of Philadelphia when the country and township governments were consolidated into Philadelphia in 1854).
In 1760, Rush graduated from the College of New Jersey (now called Princeton University), he was just 15. He took an apprenticeship with Dr. John Redman, the first president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who encouraged him to study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Rush received his M.D. in 1768, and practiced medicine for a year in Britain.
In 1769, when he was 24, Redman returned to Philadelphia, opened a medical practice, and was named Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia (now called the University of Pennsylvania). Rush joined a faculty that included John Morgan and William Shippen Jr., and published the first U.S. textbook on chemistry.
But, then as now, doctors are not shy about withholding opinion. Rush was active in the Sons of Liberty, and Thomas Paine sought Rush’s input on “Common Sense,” published in January 1776. Paine’s pamphlet was the fuel that fired the average colonist to the idea of independence.
Rush was elected to attend the Continental Congress representing Pennsylvania, where he was one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.
George Washington was not one of the signers; he was already fighting the British in New England. With significant casualties, the Continental Army Medical Service was struggling, and Rush was appointed Surgeon General. His “Directions for preserving the health of soldiers,” made an immediate impact, and the instructions were used for decades.
But Rush became embroiled in political conflicts, and spread criticism of Washington, who was fighting both the British and the efforts of Thomas Conway to give his job to Horatio Gates. Rush became involved when wrote letters to Patrick Henry and John Adams relaying criticism of Washington’s leadership. Rush was forced to resign in 1778.
Rush later regretted his “gossip” of Washington, and endeavored to be seen as a staunch supporter. He returned to Philadelphia and resumed his positions there, and in 1783 joined the staff of the Philadelphia Hospital.
Rush was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, advocating humane treatment of prisoners. He also reformed the care of the mentally ill, pushing physicians to treat patients in hospitals and not throw them into dungeons and chains. In 1792, he led a campaign to construct a wing of the Philadelphia Hospital as mental ward. In 1812, he wrote “Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind,” considered the first textbook on mental health in the U.S.
In 1793, Rush stayed in Philadelphia to treat victims of the yellow fever epidemic that forced the government to flee. He treated as many as 100 patients a day, but his traditional methods of bleeding, toxic purges, and other now discredited techniques were not effective in stemming the disease. Journalist William Cobbett wrote viciously on Rush’s methods, accusing the doctor of killing more patients than he saved. Rush sued for libel and won in a case that was as much about the politics raging between the Federalists and the Republicans (Rush was in Jefferson’s camp) as about what Cobbett wrote.
Rush stayed friends with both Adams and Jefferson, and in 1812, in a series of letters, persuaded the two to mend fences. The correspondence between the former presidents is some of the richest historical material from the era.
Rush died on Apr. 19, 1813.