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Rush, Benjamin, Class of 1760

Painting by Charles Wilson Peale

Painting by Charles Wilson Peale

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Source: Independence National Historical Park, per Wikipedia

Benjamin Rush 1760 (1746-1813) was a physician, teacher, and man of affairs who played a dramatic role in the early history of his country, his college, and his profession. A man of contradictions, he practiced and taught the backward medical art of bloodletting, yet was far ahead of his time in the care of the mentally ill. He was a vigorous foe of slavery and capital punishment, an advocate of better education for women and of free public schools. More than any other person he was responsible for bringing John Witherspoon to America as Princeton's sixth president.

He lost his father when he was six, and was brought up by his mother who kept a grocery shop in Philadelphia to help support and educate her seven children. When he was eight, he entered an academy conducted by his uncle, Samuel Finley (later president of Princeton) at Nottingham, Maryland, where he made such progress that on entering Princeton five years later he was admitted to the junior class; he graduated in 1760 when he was not quite fifteen.

Although of a pious nature, he did not think he would make a good minister. President Davies was inclined to think he should take up the law, but his uncle, Dr. Finley, persuaded him to study medicine with Dr. John Redmond in Philadelphia. He served an apprenticeship with Dr. Redmond for almost six years and attended the first lectures of Dr. John Morgan and Dr. William Shippen, Jr. 1754 in the newly formed medical department of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania).

In the summer of 1766, when he was twenty, he sat up every night for several weeks with Dr. Finley, then president of the College, during his last illness, and "finally performed the distressing office of closing his eyes." That fall he went to Edinburgh, Scotland, then the medical center of the world, where after two years of study, and some heroic experiments with emetics on his own person for his doctoral thesis on the digestion of food in the stomach, received his M.D. degree.

While in Scotland he rendered his alma mater an incalculable service, when in cooperation with Richard Stockton, a trustee, he persuaded John Witherspoon to come to America as Princeton's president. Stockton's authority and dignity were indispensable to the mission, but it was Rush's confident, audacious, and engaging youth that won the day. From Edinburgh, twenty-one-year-old Rush wrote forty-four-year-old Witherspoon "your talents have been in some measure buried, but at Princeton they will be called into action, and the evening of your life will be much more effulgent than your brightest meridian days have been." When Witherspoon felt obliged to decline because of his wife's fear of leaving home -- the very mention of going to America made her physically ill -- Rush asked Witherspoon "And must poor Nassau Hall be ruined?" and "Will you then suffer your sun to set so soon?" A little later he urged Witherspoon to reconsider the Princeton invitation and offered to help him make another appeal to his wife. Soon, on Witherspoon's invitation, Rush spent several days with the Witherspoons at their home in Paisley. Shortly afterward a friend of Witherspoon wrote to Richard Stockton in Princeton that "to Mr. Witherspoon's great satisfaction, his wife has at last given a calm hearing to Mr. Rush, argued the Matter with him, and received a satisfying Answer to all her objections; so that now she is willing if the Doctor is rechosen . . . to go with him without Grudge." Witherspoon was re-elected in due course and he and Mrs. Witherspoon came to America in August 1768.

Rush spent the following year in London, where he attended medical lectures, and in Paris. In London he was on friendly terms with Benjamin Franklin, and at Benjamin West's dined with Sir Joshua Reynolds, who in turn had him to dinner with Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith. In Paris he met Diderot, who gave him a letter of introduction to David Hume.

Soon after his return home Rush was appointed to a chair of chemistry in the College of Philadelphia's medical department, thus becoming at the age of twenty-three the first professor of chemistry in America. He built up a large private practice, at first among the poor, but he found time to further other interests. He published a pamphlet on the iniquity of the slave trade, and helped organize the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first antislavery society in America; he later became its president. In the growing quarrel between the colonies and the mother country, he associated with such leaders as Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It was on his urging that Thomas Paine wrote a strong tract on behalf of complete American independence to which he gave the title, suggested by Rush, Common Sense.

In the summer of 1775 while visiting President Witherspoon and Richard Stockton in Princeton, he met Stockton's sixteen-year-old daughter, Julia. The following January, a few days after his thirtieth birthday, he and Julia were married by the Reverend President Witherspoon. Less than seven months later, the bridegroom, who had been elected a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, joined his father-in-law and Dr. Witherspoon, both delegates from New Jersey, in signing the Declaration of Independence.

While Surgeon-General of the Middle Department of the Army during the Revolution, Rush became outraged by the conditions he found in army hospitals and, failing to get the remedial action he sought from the director general, Dr. Shippen (his former teacher), he sent a protest to General Washington, accusing Dr. Shippen of maladministration. Washington referred the protest to Congress, which ruled in favor of Shippen, and Rush resigned his commission. Rush lost confidence in Washington's ability and became associated indirectly with the Conway cabal to replace him; later he deeply regretted this action, and supported Washington politically.

Returning to Philadelphia, Rush resumed his practice, his teaching, and his humanitarian endeavors. At the medical school of the College of Philadelphia, he added courses on the theory and practice of medicine to his lectures in chemistry, and became the most admired teacher of medicine in Philadelphia, then the medical center of America. All told, he taught more than three thousand medical students, who carried his influence to every corner of the growing nation.

Rush founded the Philadelphia Dispensary for the relief of the poor, the first of its kind in the United States, and for many years gave it hours of service without pay. He also founded Dickinson College, was one of the charter trustees of Franklin College (later Franklin and Marshall), and -- being persuaded of the importance of removing "the present disparity which subsists between the sexes in the degrees of their education and knowledge" -- became an ardent incorporator of the Young Ladies Academy in Philadelphia.

He worked heroically during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793; although he was severely censured for his stubborn reliance on bloodletting, his account of the epidemic published the following year won him recognition by several European learned societies.

His greatest contributions to medical science were the reforms he instituted in the care of the mentally ill during his thirty years of service as a senior physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital. In the words of one of his biographers, Dr. Carl Binger, a psychiatrist, "he took on heroic stature," substituting kindness and compassion for cruelty, and replacing routine reliance on archaic procedures by careful clinical observation and study. The year before he died, he published Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, the first textbook on psychiatry in America, which Dr. Binger called "the crowning achievement of his professional life."

Benjamin and Julia Rush had thirteen children; one of them, Richard Rush 1797, served as cabinet officer or ambassador under four presidents.

In 1837 some of Rush's former students founded a medical college in Chicago, which they named for him. The American Psychiatric Association, whose official seal bears Rush's portrait, placed a bronze plaque at his grave in Philadelphia in 1965, designating him the "Father of American Psychiatry."

Source: Leitch p. 424 ff

Portrait of Benjamin Rush in Nassau Hall Faculty Room

Benjamin Rush depicted in Peale's George Washington at the Battle of Princeton

Benjamin Rush holdings in the Princeton University Library