Rush, Benjamin

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Rush, Benjamin (1746-1813): American, Physician.

Benjamin Rush was one of the foremost physicians in America during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. He also became the first chemistry professor and contributed to the development of psychiatry in the United States.

Born in Byberry, Pennsylvania, on January 4, 1746, he first attended a school operated by his minister uncle, and then completed a bachelor's degree at the College of New Jersey [now Princeton University] in 1766. Over the next three years he studied medicine under Dr. John Redmon and took medical courses at what is now the University of Pennsylvania. Like other American students who could afford the trip, Rush moved to Scotland to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Medical education in Europe at this time was much superior to that in America. Awarded his M.D. in 1768, he studied further in London and returned to America the following year. Over the next four decades his life and career reached one milestone after another. In 1769 he joined the medical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania as professor of chemistry; he retained this post until his death in 1813. Seven years later he married Julia Stockton, who eventually bore him seven children. Rush served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1778 and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1783 he joined the staff at Pennsylvania Hospital and four years later began care of the insane at that facility. Rush's government service continued in 1797, when he became Treasurer of the U.S. Mint, another position he held until his death. Other accomplishments included helping to found Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1783 and starting a free clinic for the poor in Philadelphia three years later.

Rush's career achievements divide neatly in half. His reputation as a government servant is secure. His medical and academic accomplishments are more problematic. He wrote the first American chemistry textbook, but emphasized study instead of experiment. He promoted bloodletting for the reduction of fever, a mistaken medical practice that continued in the United States until after the Civil War. He is the first American to write a book on psychiatry, Medical Inquiries and Observations, upon Diseases of the Mind (1812), which devoted space to sleep and dreams and included disorders of behavior. Rush also recognized the relationship between tooth decay and disease, championed inoculation for smallpox, and can be considered an early advocate of what we now call preventive medicine.

Further Reading:

Carlson Simpson, "The Definition of Mental Illness: Benjamin Rush (1745-1813)," American Journal of Psychiatry 121 (1964): 209-214.

David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush; revolutionary gadfly, 1971.

Richard Harrison Shryock, "The Medical Reputation of Benjamin Rush: Contrasts Over Two Centuries," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 45 (1971): 507-552.

A.J. Wright

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