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Benjamin Rush, a physician, teacher and political activist, is best known for being a member of the Continental Congress and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His controversial medical theories showed forward vision on some subjects, but remarkably unenlightened views on others. His confidence in his own judgment led him to question the military strategy of General George Washington.
Rush was born into a strongly religious family on December 24, 1745, in Byberry Township, near Philadelphia. He was educated at a private academy and then sent to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He graduated at age 14 in 1760 and then began the study of medicine. After six years as a medical apprentice in Philadelphia, Rush finished his education at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, where he received his medical degree in 1768. He undertook further training at a hospital in London, England and attended medical lectures in Paris, France, where he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin. Returning to America in 1769, Rush became, at age 23, a chemistry professor at the medical school that was part of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). In 1770, he began a prolific writing career when he published the first American textbook on chemistry. He also began publishing essays on topics relating to health as well as temperance, Capital Punishment, and Slavery. In 1774, Rush co-founded one of America's first anti-slavery societies.
Rush's prodigious schedule as a physician, teacher, writer, and lecturer did not prevent him from also becoming an ardent political activist. He published numerous tracts on colonial rights and became a member of the provincial confer ence of Pennsylvania. In 1776, Rush was elected to the Continental Congress, the body of delegates that met to create the political roadmap for the American colonies. As a strong advocate of the radical view that the colonies should control their own destinies, Rush was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The proclamation, largely crafted by Thomas Jefferson, was approved on July 4, 1776. In 1777, Rush was appointed Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army. He resigned the appointment early in 1778 because he disagreed with the way the military hospitals were being run by his superior, who retained the support of General Washington. In return, Rush publicly questioned Washington's military judgment, giving brief support to a group who sought to replace Washington with another leader. Rush later expressed regret over his opposition to Washington.
Rush resumed his work as a physician, teacher, and lecturer. In 1783, he helped to found Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and became one of its trustees. In 1786, he founded the Philadelphia Dispensary, a clinic that provided free medical services to poor people. He advocated limitations on the use of alcohol and tobacco, encouraged the use of clinical research and instruction, and advanced proposals for the study of veterinary medicine.
Rush's greatest accomplishments were in the area of mental health. He worked for years with insane patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital and sought humane treatment for them on the theory that insanity could be assuaged by medical treatment. He also deduced that many mental disorders had physical causes. His significant contributions to the study of mental illness and its causes led to Rush's appellation as the "Father of American Psychiatry". While showing considerable enlightenment on the topic of insanity, Rush espoused support for methods of treating physical ailments that were not only controversial, but also often fatal. Rush's approach to pathology was more theoretical than scientific. He was a proponent of bloodletting, purging, and other treatments that usually weakened patients and sometimes killed them.
"I anticipate the Day when to command Respect in the remotest Regions it will be sufficient to say I am an American."
In 1787, Rush was a member of the Pennsylvania delegation that ratified the U.S. Constitution. Ten years later, in 1797, President John Adams appointed him as Treasurer of the U.S. Mint. Rush retained the position until his death in Philadelphia on April 19, 1813.
Barton, David. 1999. Benjamin Rush. Aledo, Tex.: Wallbuilder Press.King, Lester. 1991. Transformations in American Medicine: From Benjamin Rush to William Osler. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hawke, David Freeman. 1971. Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merill.