The Remarkable Dr. Benjamin Rush
Our founder authored the first substantial work in the nation on mental illness and much, much more
by Eric Cox '54
April 1, 2010
Eric Cox is the author of Conversations with George Washington and Benjamin Rush.
The combative, disputatious, idealistic Benjamin Rush is virtually unknown today, except by physicians. His obscurity is in stark contrast to his staggering array of accomplishments achieved by his mid forties. Two hundred years ago this crusading doctor initiated social movements that flourish today: civil rights, feminism, prison reform, free medical care for the poor and humane treatment for the mentally ill. He is considered the founder of both psychiatry and the temperance movement and was a pioneer in the study of dentistry and veterinary medicine. Also, he might be considered the leading educator of the day. He taught some 3,000 physicians and started three Pennsylvania colleges: Dickinson in Carlisle, Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster and the Philadelphia College of Physicians. He was the nation's first professor of chemistry, author of the first texts on chemistry and mental health, signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress and volunteer in the revolutionary army.
Through extensive writing, lectures and institution building, he worked to prepare the colonists for their daring experiment in republican government. In this important undertaking, he joined his friends Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in guiding a young nation toward political maturity.
Rush was born in 1746 near Philadelphia, the city where he spent most of his 67 years. It was then the political and cultural center of the nation-to-be as well as its capital and largest city, with some 20,000 residents.
Rush had strong religious convictions and considered becoming a minister. But after graduation from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at 15, he became an apprentice to a local physician and then went to Scotland where he received his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. After more medical study in London and travel to Paris, he returned to Philadelphia to start a medical practice, mostly treating poor patients, many without a fee. Eventually, he was to become the leading physician of the day, but not without great controversy regarding ways to heal the sick and many ugly charges printed about him in the local press.
Practicing and teaching medicine constituted his primary love. But these endeavors were not enough to contain his great energy and strong passions. When he returned from abroad, the colonies were seething with revolt. Rush viewed the Stamp Act of 1767 especially unsettling, taxing residents without their consent. Rush cast his lot with the revolutionaries, but with a measure of discretion as open treason would put him at odds with doctors and many wealthy Quakers. Rush persuaded Tom Paine to write Common Sense and then Rush secured a publisher for it. It sold over 100,000 copies, putting the fat in the fire. It was crucial in turning the tide in favor of a revolt which he then openly supported, volunteering for the Continental Army for which he became surgeon general.
Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, he seemed to have a mind that was on fire. This may be the reason that there was hardly an important issue of the day in which he was not involved. One result was that he amassed a large cadre of detractors and opponents upset with his political views and his methods of healing.
Rush had special concern for the downtrodden. This compassion involved him in prison reform, favoring rehabilitation over punishment. It also inspired him to open the nation's first free clinic. Also, he crusaded against the death penalty except for murder. And he was not idle in his opposition to slavery. He helped form the country’s first anti-slavery society and served as one of its presidents. And in religion, he was a stormy petrel, having migrated through various faiths, possibly picking up a bit from each: the Quaker environment in which he was raised, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and possibly Unitarian. It seems he ended up as a Universalist, a denomination he helped form by attending its formative meetings. Even if Rush was deeply religious, he was not too optimistic regarding religious influence on ethical behavior. He wrote to his wife in 1791 that the clergy and faithful of every denomination “are too good to do good.” In 1803 Rush wrote to Jefferson in a similar vein expressing little faith in the slim influence in which opinions in religion have on morals. It followed logically for him to oppose public oaths.
He felt one standard of truth was sufficient, rather than one encouraged by God and regular truths used in everyday discourse.
Having an opinion it seems on every subject under the sun, he wrote, spoke and corresponded extensively with the leading citizens of the day. And did he ever write. His collected writings housed at the Pennsylvania Historical Society fill 45 thick volumes.
Rush was a gifted and accomplished speaker. His many, many public addresses attracted increasingly large audiences. As his fame spread, he was honored with membership in learned societies here and abroad, including the American Philosophical Society in which he held office and before which he read numerous papers.
He was a devoted husband, the father of 13 children and a fighter of no mean proportions. After all of these impressive initiatives, battle-scarred and discouraged, he retreated from politics and social reform to become at age 51 the treasurer of the U.S. Mint. President John Adams nominated him, describing it as one of his public actions he recalled with the most satisfaction, even if it made him 39 enemies. He held this position for 16 years until his death in 1813.
Rush is most recognized for his accomplishments in the fields of medicine and psychiatry. As one example, Rush Hospital in Chicago bears his likeness. In effect, he inaugurated psychiatry a century before Freud. His book on mental health published in 1812 was the first substantial work in the nation on mental illness. It was translated into German and was used in medical schools for five decades.
Copyright The Human Quest March/April 1999
This essay also is available in Eric Cox’s book, Conversations with George Washington and Benjamin Rush, which may be purchased at Amazon.com.