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Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush
Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1818
Born (1746-01-04)January 4, 1746
Byberry, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, US
Died April 19, 1813(1813-04-19) (aged 67)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Resting place Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia
Alma mater Princeton University
University of Edinburgh
Occupation Physician, writer, educator
Known for Signer of the United States Declaration of Independence
Religion Presbyterian

Benjamin Rush (January 4, 1746 [O.S. December 24, 1745] – April 19, 1813) was a Founding Father of the United States. Rush was a civic leader in Philadelphia, where he was a physician, politician, social reformer, educator and humanitarian, as well as the founder of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Rush signed the Declaration of Independence and attended the Continental Congress. He served as Surgeon General in the Continental army. Rush became a professor of chemistry, medical theory, and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania.[1]

Rush was a leader of the

External links

  • Rush, Benjamin (1947). The selected writings of Benjamin Rush. New York: Philosophical Library. p. 448.  

Primary sources

  • Binger, Carl (1966). Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush (1746–1813). 
  • Brodsky, Alyn (2004). Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician. New York: Truman Talley Books/St. Martin's Press. 
  • Hawke, David (1971). Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. 
  • Levine, Harry G. "The Discovery of Addiction: Changing Conceptions of Habitual Drunkenness in America." Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 1978; 15: pp: 493–506. Also available at:
  • Spencer, Mark G. Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment (2013)

Further reading

  1. ^ "Benjamin Rush (1746–1813)". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2011-08-20. 
  2. ^ Robert Muccigrosso, ed., Research Guide to American Historical Biography (1988) 3:1139–42
  3. ^ "John Rush died in July 1751 at the age of thirty-nine. He went peacefully, saying over and over, "Lord! Lord! Lord!" and his wife saw him buried as he wished in the cemetery behind Christ Church." – David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush; revolutionary gadfly (1971), p. 11
  4. ^ "Their_Own_Words_About_the_Author_Benjamin_ Rush_(1745–1813)". June 7, 2011. Retrieved 2011-06-07. 
  5. ^ even the identity of Rush's siblings becomes confused, for I have seen webpages saying Rush and one brother were responsible for the entire family, and also giving Rush's brothers names as William (a lawyer) and Samuel lists Rush's siblings as Jacob, James, John, Rebecca, Rachel and Stephenson. Most likely, though William and Samuel were relatives and close friends, for Benjamin was a 5th generation removed from the Cromwell era Rush and Benjamin's father's family lived in the Byberry area for generations.
  6. ^ "Benjamin Rush". Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Hawke 1971, pp. 51–52
  8. ^ Citations needed. In particular the next sentence needs citations or dates or movement into another section if it in fact does not reflect to his early career.
  9. ^ "The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton".  
  10. ^ Gillette, Mary (1981 retrieved from on October 24, 2012). The Army Medical Department 1775–1818. Army Medical Department Office of Medical History. pp. 29–43, 65–92. 
  11. ^ Bayne-Jones, Stanhope (1968 retrieved from on October 24, 2012). Evolution of Preventative Medicine in the United States Army 1607–1939. Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army. pp. 36–41. 
  12. ^ Binger 1966, pp. 133–34
  13. ^ Brodsky 2004, pp. 212–215
  14. ^ Binger 1966, pp. 136–37
  15. ^ Hawke 1971, pp. 219–20
  16. ^ Binger 1966, p. 137
  17. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter R" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 28, 2014. 
  18. ^ "The Prison Society – About Us". The Pennsylvania Prison Society. Retrieved 2008-11-16. 
  19. ^ "The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons".  
  20. ^ Elin Woodger AND Brandon Toropov (2009). Encyclopedia of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Infobase Publishing. pp. 304–06. 
  21. ^ Donald J. D'Elia, "Dr. Benjamin Rush and the Negro," Journal of the History of Ideas (1969) 30#3 pp. 413–22 in JSTOR
  22. ^ Webb, Stephen H. "Introducing Black Harry Hoosier: The History Behind Indiana's Namesake". Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. XCVIII (March 2002). Trustees of Indiana University. Accessed October 17, 2013.
  23. ^ Dolbeare & Cummings 2010: 44
  24. ^ Omi, M. and H. Winant (1986). Racial formation in the United States : from the 1960s to the 1980s. New York ; London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  25. ^ Carson, Clayborne (2005). African American Lives. New York: Pearson Longman. p. 119.  
  26. ^ UPenn University Archives & Records Center, Penn Biographies – Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) [4]
  27. ^ a b The Founders' Constitution, Volume 5, Amendment VIII, Document 16 (The University of Chicago Press)[5]
  28. ^ Marion B. Savin and Harold J. Abrahams, "The Young Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia," History of Education Journal (1957) 8#2 pp. 58–67.
  29. ^ Jean S. Straub, "Benjamin Rush's View on Women's Education," Pennsylvania History (1987) 34#2 pp. 147–57.
  30. ^ Benjamin Rush – Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon Diseases of the Mind. (July 17, 2003). Retrieved on 2013-07-23.
  31. ^ Rush, Benjamin (1815). "A Defence of Blood-letting, as a Remedy for Certain Diseases". Medical Inquiries and Observations 4. Retrieved 2012-10-24. 
  32. ^ Brodsky at p. 329.
  33. ^ Binger at pp. 223–31.
  34. ^ Binger at pp. 239–47
  35. ^ Medicine at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century. Retrieved on 2013-07-23.
  36. ^ Benjamin Rush and the State of Medicine in 1803 – Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. (July 8, 2013). Retrieved on 2013-07-23.
  37. ^ Binger at p. 296.
  38. ^ Brodsky at pp. 331, 363.
  39. ^ Binger at pp. 220, 295.
  40. ^ Rush AB (1789). "An account of the bilious remitting fever, as it appeared in Philadelphia in the summer and autumn of the year 1780". Medical enquiries and observations. Philadelphia, Pa.: Prichard and Hall. pp. 104–17. 
  41. ^ Brown, David E. (6 June 1999). "What They Carried".  
  42. ^ Rush, Benjamin (1799). "Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Color (As It Is Called) of the Negroes Is Derived from the Leprosy". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 4. 
  43. ^ Benjamin Rush on Savagism and Progress Stephen, J. Kunitz and Benjamin Rush Ethnohistory, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (Winter – Spring, 1970), pp. 31–42 Published by: Duke University Press
  44. ^">
  45. ^ Beam, Alex (2001). Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital. 
  46. ^ Deutsch, Albert (2007). The Mentally Ill in America: A History of Their Care and Treatment From Colonial Times. 
  47. ^ Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind, by Benjamin Rush, M.D., 4th Edition, Philadelphia: John Grigg, 1830, pp. 98, 197
  48. ^ Brodsky 2004
  49. ^ [6] Archived February 18, 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  50. ^ Elster, Jon (1999). Strong Feelings: Emotion, Addiction, and Human Behavior. MIT Press. p. 131.  
  51. ^ Durrant, Russil; Jo Thakker (2003). Substance Use & Abuse: Cultural and Historical Perspectives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 
  52. ^ Rush, Benjamin (1805). Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind. Philadelphia: Bartam. 
  53. ^ "History". Rush University. Retrieved 2015-09-30. 
  54. ^ Hawke at p. 5, citing Jeremiah's lament, "Woe is me, my mother, that thou has borne me, a man of strife, and a man of contention to the whole earth. I have neither lent on usury, nor have men lent to me on usury, yet every one of them doth curse me," in Letter to John Adams, December 26, 1811.
  55. ^ Hawke at p. 312
  56. ^ Brodsky at pp. 11–12, 16–17, 269–70, 322, 346
  57. ^ Letter to John Adams, April 5, 1808 in Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush, pp. 2:962–63
  58. ^ "Benjamin Rush". UNitarian Universalist Association. July 8, 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-08. 
  59. ^ Hawke at pp. 379–80
  60. ^ Dr. Benjamin Rush Diary Page. Retrieved on 2013-07-23.
  61. ^ Benjamin Rush, Signer of Declaration of Independence
  62. ^ a b America's God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations, by William Federer, 1999, ISBN 1-880563-09-6, p. 543
  63. ^ Rush, Benjamin, M.D. (1806). "A plan of a Peace-Office for the United States". Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical. (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Thomas and William Bradford. pp. 183–88. Retrieved 2010-06-03. 
  64. ^ Runes, Dagobert D., ed. (1947). "A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States". The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. New York: Philosophical Library. pp. 19–24. Retrieved 2011-12-15. 
  65. ^ accessdate=2012-10-24
  66. ^ To Elias Boudinot on July 9, 1788. Letters of Benjamin Rush L. H. Butterfield, ed., (American Philosophical; Society, 1951), Vol. I, p. 475.
  67. ^ Thomas Szasz, "A bogus Benjamin Rush quote: contribution to the history of pharmacracy," History of Psychiatry (2005) 16#1 pp. 89–98 doi: 10.1177/0957154X05044554
  68. ^ Binger at pp. 297–98.
  69. ^ "The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen.
  70. ^ Landsman, Ned C. (2001). Nation and Province in the First British Empire. Bucknell University Press. 
  71. ^  
  72. ^ Benjamin Rush at Find a Grave


The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a collection of Benjamin Rush's original manuscripts.

Archival collections

  • Letters of Benjamin Rush, volume 1: 1761–1792 (1951), editor L.H. Butterfield, Princeton University Press
  • Essays: Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (1798) Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1989 reprint: Syracuse University Press, ISBN 0-912756-22-5, includes "A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States"
  • The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His "Travels Through Life" Together with his Commonplace Book for 1789–1813, 1970 reprint: Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-8371-3037-9
  • Medical Inquiries And Observations Upon The Diseases Of The Mind, 2006 reprint: Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1-4286-2669-7. Free digital copies of original published in 1812 at or
  • The Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813 (2001), Liberty Fund, ISBN 0-86597-287-7
  • Benjamin Rush, M.D: A Bibliographic Guide (1996), Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-29823-8
  • An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, Upon Slave-keeping. Philadelphia: Printed by J. Dunlap, 1773.


Mrs Julia Rush wife of Benjamin Rush MD Born March 2, 1759 Died July 7, 1848"

"In memory of Benjamin Rush MD he died on April 19 in the year of our Lord 1813 Aged 68 years Well done good and faithful servant enter thou into the joy of the Lord"

After dying of typhus fever, he was buried (in Section N67) along with his wife Julia in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia,[72] not far from where Benjamin Franklin is buried. At the site, a small plaque honoring Benjamin Rush has been placed. However, the box marker is next to the plaque on the right, with inscriptions on the top. The inscription reads,

In 1812, Rush helped reconcile the friendship of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams by encouraging the two former presidents to resume writing to each other.[71]

Rush's eldest son John fell into depression as a result of experiences during his tour of duty in the United States Navy. When he returned home unable to care for himself, Rush placed him in the mental ward at the Pennsylvania Hospital, where he died 30 years later without having recovered.[70]

On January 11, 1776, Rush married Julia Stockton (1759–1848), daughter of Richard Stockton, another signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife Annis Boudinot Stockton. They had 13 children, 9 of whom survived their first year: John, Ann Emily, Richard, Susannah (died as an infant), Elizabeth Graeme (died as an infant), Mary B, James, William (died as an infant), Benjamin (died as an infant), Benjamin, Julia, Samuel, William. Son Richard later became a member of the cabinets of James Madison and James Monroe.

Rush was a remote relative of William Penn (1644–1718) who established Pennsylvania. Before the Revolutionary war, Rush was engaged to Sarah Eve, daughter of prominent Philadelphian, Captain Oswell Eve, Sr. She died before their scheduled wedding.

Personal life and death

...By this time we had waited on Dr. Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston, and told them of our distressing situation. We considered it a blessing that the Lord had put it into our hearts to wait upon... those gentle-men. They pitied our situation, and subscribed largely towards the church, and were very friendly towards us and advised us how to go on. We appointed Mr. Ralston our treasurer. Dr. Rush did much for us in public by his influence. I hope the name of Dr. Benjamin Rush and Mr. Robert Ralston will never be forgotten among us. They were the two first gentlemen who espoused the cause of the oppressed and aided us in building the house of the Lord for the poor Africans to worship in. Here was the beginning and rise of the first African church in America."[69]

Rush also helped Richard Allen found the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his autobiography, Allen wrote:

Before 1779, Rush's religious views were influenced by what he described as "Fletcher's controversy with the Calvinists in favor of the Universality of the atonement." After hearing Elhanan Winchester preach, Rush indicated that this theology "embraced and reconciled my ancient calvinistical, and my newly adopted (Arminian) principles. From that time on I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men." To simplify, both believed in punishment after death for the wicked. His wife, Julia Rush, thought her husband like Martin Luther for his ardent passions, fearless attacks on old prejudices, and quick tongue against perceived enemies.[68]

Rush felt that the United States was the work of God: "I do not believe that the Constitution was the offspring of inspiration, but I am as perfectly satisfied that the Union of the United States in its form and adoption is as much the work of a Divine Providence as any of the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testament".[66] In 1798, after the Constitution's adoption, Rush declared: "The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments."[62] There is no evidence that he ever claimed, "Unless we put medical freedom into the constitution the time will come when medicine will organize into an undercover dictatorship and force people who wish doctors and treatment of their own choice to submit to only what the dictating outfit offers." This bogus quote has terms like "undercover," "outfit" and "dictatorship" that according to the Oxford English Dictionary were not used this way during his lifetime.[67]

Rush fought for temperance,[59] and both public and Sunday schools. He helped found the Bible Society at Philadelphia (now known as the Pennsylvania Bible Society),[60][61] and promoted the American Sunday School Union.[62] When many public schools stopped using the Bible as a textbook, Rush proposed that the U.S. government require such use, as well as furnish an American bible to every family at public expense. In 1806 Rush also proposed inscribing "The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men's Lives, But To Save Them."[63][64] above the doors of courthouses and other public buildings. Earlier, on July 16, 1776, Rush had complained to Virginia's Patrick Henry about a provision in that state's constitution of 1776 which forbad clergymen from serving in the legislature.[65]

Rush advocated Christianity in public life and in education, and sometimes compared himself to the prophet Jeremiah.[54] Rush regularly attended Christ Church in Philadelphia and counted William White among his closest friends (and neighbors). Ever the controversialist, Rush became involved in internal disputes over the revised Book of Common Prayer and the splitting of the Episcopal Church from the Church of England, as well as dabbled with Presbyterianism, Methodism (which split from Anglicanism in those years), and Unitarianism.[55][56] In a letter to John Adams, Rush described his religious views as "a compound of the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of most of our Christian churches."[57] Christian Universalists consider him one of their founders, although Rush stopped attending that church after the death of his friend, former Baptist pastor Elhanan Winchester in 1797.[58]

Religious views and vision

During his career, he educated over 3000 medical students, and several of these established Rush Medical College (Chicago) in his honor after his death. One of his last apprentices was Samuel A. Cartwright, later a Confederate States of America surgeon charged with improving sanitary conditions in the camps around Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, formerly Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, was named in his honor.[53]

Educational legacy

In honor of his service to mental health, the American Psychiatric Association uses Rush's image as part of their seal.

Rush pioneered the therapeutic approach to addiction.[50][51] Prior to his work, drunkenness was viewed as being sinful and a matter of choice. Rush believed that the alcoholic loses control over himself and identified the properties of alcohol, rather than the alcoholic's choice, as the causal agent. He developed the conception of alcoholism as a form of medical disease and proposed that alcoholics should be weaned from their addiction via less potent substances.[52]

Furthermore, Rush was one of the first people to describe Savant Syndrome. In 1789 he described the abilities of Thomas Fuller, a lightning calculator. His observation would later be described in other individuals by notable scientists like John Langdon Down.[49]

It has been remarked, that the maniacs of the male sex in all hospitals, who assist in cutting wood, making fires, and digging in a garden, and the females who are employed in washing, ironing, and scrubbing floors, often recover, while persons, whose rank exempts them from performing such services, languish away their lives within the walls of the hospital.

Rush is sometimes considered a pioneer of occupational therapy particularly as it pertains to the institutionalized.[48] In Diseases of the Mind (1812), Rush wrote:

Rush believed, as did so many physicians of the time, that bleeding and active purging with mercury(I) chloride (calomel) were the preferable medical treatments for insanity, a fact evidenced by his statement that, “It is sometimes difficult to prevail upon patients in this state of madness, or even to compel them, to take mercury in any of the ways in which it is usually administered. In these cases I have succeeded, by sprinkling a few grains of calomel daily upon a piece of bread, and afterwards spreading over it, a thin covering of butter.” [47] While Rush followed the standard procedures of bleeding and treatment with mercury, he did not believe that "coercion" and "restraint", the physical punishment, chains and dungeons, which were the practice of the time, were the answer. He took patients from that drudgery and placed them in a "normal" hospital setting. This alone resulted in a number of patients recovering sufficiently to return to society. For this reason his approach is officially referred to as the Moral Therapy.

Rush is considered the "Father of American Psychiatry", publishing the first textbook on the subject in the United States, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (1812).[44] He undertook to classify different forms of mental illness and to theorize as to their causes and possible cures. Rush believed (incorrectly) that many mental illnesses were caused by disruptions of the blood circulation, or by sensory overload, and treated them with devices meant to improve circulation to the brain such as a centrifugal spinning board, and inactivity/sensory deprivation via a restraining chair with a sensory-deprivation head enclosure ("Tranquilizer Chair").[45] After seeing mental patients in appalling conditions in the Pennsylvania Hospital, Rush led a successful campaign in 1792 for the state to build a separate mental ward where the patients could be kept in more humane conditions.[46]

Father of American psychiatry

"The Moral Thermometer." from Benjamin Rush's An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and the Mind. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1790 (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Mental health

Rush was interested in Native American health. He wanted to find out why Native Americans were very susceptible to certain illnesses and whether they suffered from higher mortality rates as compared to civilized people. Other questions that he raised was whether or not they dreamt more or if their hair turned gray as they got older. His fascination with these people came from his interest in the theory that social scientists can better study the history of their own civilization by studying cultures in earlier states of development, "primitive men". In his autobiography he writes "From a review of the three different species of settlers, it appears that there are certain regular stages which mark the progress from the savage to civilized life. The first settler is nearly related to an Indian in his manners. In the second, the Indian manners are more diluted. It is in the third species only that we behold civilization completed. It is to the third species of settlers only that it is proper to apply the term of farmers. While we record the vices of the first and second settlers, it is but just to mention their virtues likewise. Their mutual wants produce mutual dependence; hence they are kind and friendly to each other. Their solitary situation makes visitors agreeable to them; hence they are hospitable to stranger."[43]

Another of Rush's medical views that now draws criticism is his analysis of race. In reviewing the case of Henry Moss, a slave who lost his dark skin color (probably through vitiligo), Rush characterized being black as a hereditary and curable skin disease (called "negroidism"). Rush wrote that "Whites should not tyrannize over [blacks], for their disease should entitle them to a double portion of humanity. However, by the same token, whites should not intermarry with them, for this would tend to infect posterity with the 'disorder'... attempts must be made to cure the disease."[42]

Rush concocted a mixture of calomel, chlorine, jalap and mercury to create a proprietary purgative which he named “Dr Rush’s Thunderbolts”; it was used by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark during their expedition to the Pacific coast.[41]

Rush also wrote the first case report on dengue fever (published in 1789 on a case from 1780).[40] However, his greatest contributions to physical medicine now appear to have been his establishment of a public dispensary for low income patients, and public works associated with draining and rerouting Dock Creek (eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, which greatly decreased typhus, typhoid and cholera outbreaks).


Rush was a leading proponent of heroic medicine, and firmly believed in such practices as bleeding patients[31] (a practice now known to be generally harmful but at the time was common practice), as well as purges using calomel and other toxic substances. In his report on the Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, Rush wrote: "I have found bleeding to be useful, not only in cases where the pulse was full and quick, but where it was slow and tense. I have bled twice in many, and in one acute case four times, with the happiest effect. I consider intrepidity in the use of the lancet, at present, to be necessary, as it is in the use of mercury and jalap, in this insidious and ferocious disease." During that epidemic, Rush gained acclaim for remaining in town and treating sometimes 100 patients per day (some through free black volunteers coordinated by Richard Allen), but many died. Even Rush acknowledged the failure of two treatments, sweats in vinegar-wrapped blankets accompanied by mercury rubs, and cold baths.[32]

Dr. Benjamin Rush painted by Charles Willson Peale, 1783

Physical medicine

Although anatomy was well understood by Rush's time, the causes of disease remained elusive. Physicians therefore relied on various unscientific treatments. Although Rush continued these practices, he also actively sought new explanations and new approaches to treatment, some of which remain influential, and others of which seem incredible today. The third edition of Rush's Observations, a four-volume compilation published in 1812, calling for humane treatment of the mentally ill is available digitally here.[30]

Contributions to medicine

After the Revolution, Rush proposed a new model of education for women that included English language, vocal music, dancing, sciences, bookkeeping, history, and moral philosophy. He was instrumental to the founding of the Young Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia, the first chartered women's institution of higher education in Philadelphia.[28] A utilitarian, Rush saw little need for training women in metaphysics, logic, mathematics, or advanced science. He wanted the emphasis on guiding women toward moral essays, poetry, history, and religious writings because women were especially needed and useful in uplifting America's morals and manners. Rush also promoted what is now called Republican motherhood by instructing the young in the obligations of patriotism, the blessings of liberty and the true meaning of Republicanism. He opposed coeducational classrooms and insisted on the need to instruct all youth in the Christian religion.[29]

Status of women

This 1792 treatise was preceded by comments on the efficacy of the death penalty that he self-references and which, evidently, appeared in the second volume of the American Museum.[27]

I. Every man possesses an absolute power over his own liberty and property, but not over his own life...II. The punishment of murder by death, is contrary to reason, and to the order and happiness of society...III. The punishment of murder by death, is contrary to divine revelation.[27]

Rush deemed public punishments such as putting a person on display in stocks, common at the time, to be counterproductive. He proposed instead private confinement, labor, solitude, and religious instruction for criminals. In addition he opposed the death penalty. His outspoken opposition to capital punishment pushed the Pennsylvania legislature to abolish the death penalty for all crimes other than first-degree murder.[26] He authored a 1792 treatise on punishing murder by death in which he made three principle arguments:

Capital punishment

Despite his public condemnations of slavery, Rush purchased a slave named William Grubber in 1776. To the consternation of many, Rush still owned Grubber when he joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1784.[25]

In 1792, Rush read a paper before the American Philosophical Society which argued that the "color" and "figure" of blacks were derived from a form of leprosy. He argued that with proper treatment, blacks could be cured and become white.[24]

He warmly praised the ministry of "Black Harry" Hosier, the freedman circuit rider who accompanied Bishop John Asbury during the establishment of the Methodist Church in America,[22] but the highlight of his involvement was the pamphlet he wrote in 1773 entitled "An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements in America, upon Slave-Keeping." In this first of his many attacks on the social evils of his day, he not only assailed the slave trade, but the entire institution of slavery. Rush argued scientifically that Negroes were not by nature intellectually or morally inferior. Any apparent evidence to the contrary was only the perverted expression of slavery, which "is so foreign to the human mind, that the moral faculties, as well as those of the understanding are debased, and rendered torpid by it."[23]

In 1766 when Rush set out for his studies in Edinburgh, he was outraged by the sight of 100 slave ships in Liverpool harbor. As a prominent Presbyterian doctor and professor of chemistry in Philadelphia, he provided a bold and respected voice against the slave trade that could not be ignored.[21]



  • Turkish opium for nervousness
  • emetics to induce vomiting
  • medicinal wine
  • fifty dozen of Dr. Rush's Bilious Pills, laxatives containing more than 50% mercury, which have since colloquially been referred to as "thunderclappers". Their meat-rich diet and lack of clean water during the expedition gave the men cause to use them frequently. Though their efficacy is questionable, their high mercury content provided an excellent tracer by which archaeologists have been able to track the corps' actual route to the Pacific.[20]

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare for the Lewis and Clark Expedition under the tutelage of Rush, who taught Lewis about frontier illnesses and the performance of bloodletting. Rush provided the corps with a medical kit that included:

Corps of discovery

Rush was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (known today as the Pennsylvania Prison Society[18]), which greatly influenced the construction of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.[19]

He became Professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania in 1791, though the quality of his medicine was quite primitive even for the time: he advocated bleeding (for almost any illness) long after its practice had declined. He became a social activist, an abolitionist, and was the most well-known physician in America at the time of his death. He was also founder of the private liberal arts college Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In 1794, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

In 1783 he was appointed to the staff of Pennsylvania Hospital, of which he remained a member until his death. He was elected to the Pennsylvania convention which adopted the Federal constitution and was appointed treasurer of the U.S. Mint, serving from 1797–1813. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1788.[17]

Post Revolution

The Philadelphia physician and patriot Benjamin Rush, a staunch admirer, observed that Washington "has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among 10,000 people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.

In his book 1776, David McCullough quotes Rush, referring to George Washington:

[16] to delete his association with those stinging words.John Marshall and Chief Justice Bushrod Washington Rush later expressed regret for his gossip against Washington. In a letter to John Adams in 1812, Rush wrote, "He [Washington] was the highly favored instrument whose patriotism and name contributed greatly to the establishment of the independence of the United States." Rush also successfully pleaded with Washington's biographers Judge [15] Shippen sought Rush's resignation, and received it by the end of the month after Continental Congress delegate

Rush criticized General Patrick Henry dated January 12, 1778, quoted General Thomas Conway saying that if not for God's grace the ongoing war would have been lost by Washington and his weak counselors. Henry forwarded the letter to Washington, despite Rush's request that the criticism be conveyed orally, and Washington recognized the handwriting. At the time, the Conway Cabal was trying to replace Washington with Horatio Gates as commander-in-chief.[12] The letter also relayed General Sullivan's criticism that forces directly under Washington were undisciplined and mob-like, and contrasted Gates' army as "a well-regulated family".[13] Ten days later, Rush wrote to John Adams relaying complaints inside Washington's army, including about "bad bread, no order, universal disgust" and praising Conway, who had been appointed Inspector General[14]

Campaign against General Washington

The Army Medical Service was in disarray, between the military casualties, extremely high losses due to typhoid, yellow fever and other camp illnesses, political conflicts between Dr. William Shippen, Jr., and inadequate supplies and guidance from the Medical Committee.[10] Nonetheless, Rush accepted an appointment as surgeon-general of the middle department of the Continental Army. Rush's order "Directions for preserving the health of soldiers" became one of the foundations of preventative military medicine and was repeatedly republished, including as late as 1908.[11] However, Rush's reporting of Dr. Shippen's misappropriation of food and wine supplies intended to comfort hospitalized soldiers, under-reporting of patient deaths, and failure to visit the hospitals under his command, ultimately led to Rush's resignation in 1778.

While Rush was representing Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress (and serving on its Medical Committee), he also used his medical skills in the field. Rush accompanied the Philadelphia militia during the battles after which the British occupied Philadelphia and most of New Jersey and the Continental Congress fled to York, Pennsylvania. He is remembered for his service after the Battle of Princeton by the artist John Trumbull.[9]

The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton by John Trumbull, Dr. Benjamin Rush and General George Washington enter from the background, with Captain William Leslie, shown on the right, mortally wounded

Rush was active in the Sons of Liberty and was elected to attend the provincial conference to send delegates to the Continental Congress. Thomas Paine consulted Rush when writing the profoundly influential pro-independence pamphlet Common Sense. Rush represented Pennsylvania and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also represented Philadelphia at Pennsylvania's own Constitutional Convention, and got into trouble when he criticized the new Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776.

Revolutionary period

Returning to the Colonies in 1769 (age 24), Rush opened a medical practice in Philadelphia and became Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia (now the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania).[8] Rush ultimately published the first American textbook on chemistry, several volumes on medical student education, and wrote influential patriotic essays.

In 1760, after further studies at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Rush graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. From 1761 to 1766, Rush apprenticed under Dr. John Redman in Philadelphia. Redman encouraged him to further his studies at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where Rush studied from 1766 to 1768 and earned a M.D. degree.[6] Rush became fluent in French, Italian, and Spanish as a result of his studies and European tour. While at Edinburgh, he became a friend of the Earl of Leven and his family, including William Leslie.[7]

Benjamin Rush was born to John Rush and Susanna Hall on January 4, 1746 (December 24, 1745 O.S.). The family which included seven children lived on a plantation in the Township of Byberry in Philadelphia County, then about 14 mi outside Philadelphia (the township was incorporated into Philadelphia in 1854 and now remains one of its neighborhoods). Benjamin was the fourth of the seven children. Rush's father died when he was six,[3] leaving his mother, who ran a country store, to care for the large family. At eight years of age, Benjamin was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, to receive a proper education.[4] Benjamin and his older brother Jacob (b. 1738)[5] attended a school in Cecil County, Maryland, run by the Rev. Samuel Finley, which would later become West Nottingham Academy.

The birthplace of Benjamin Rush, photographed in 1959.

Early life and career


  • Early life and career 1
  • Revolutionary period 2
  • Campaign against General Washington 3
  • Post Revolution 4
  • Corps of discovery 5
  • Reforms 6
    • Anti-slavery 6.1
    • Capital punishment 6.2
    • Status of women 6.3
  • Contributions to medicine 7
    • Physical medicine 7.1
    • Mental health 7.2
      • Father of American psychiatry 7.2.1
  • Educational legacy 8
  • Religious views and vision 9
  • Personal life and death 10
  • Writings 11
  • Archival collections 12
  • Notes 13
  • Further reading 14
    • Primary sources 14.1
  • External links 15


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