Dr. Benjamin Rush was a scientist, physician, reformer and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence. His life would take him across the world and into the pages of history.
Benjamin Rush was born just outside Philadelphia on Christmas Eve, 1745. He was the fourth of seven children born to a farmer and storekeeper.
When Rush was 5, his father died, leaving his mother to run the store and raise the young children on her own. Concerned with the well-being of her children, Rush and a brother were sent to live with an aunt and uncle at age eight to further his education.
He proved to be a very bright student and was very curious about the world. When he was barely a teenager, he began attending the College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton University, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. By 1760, he had completed a bachelors degree at the age of 14.
Fascinated with science, he began studying medicine under Dr. John Redmon, one of the most prominent physicians in Philadelphia. Redmon, impressed with Rush’s talents, encouraged him to go to Scotland to study at the University of Edinburgh, then one of the most respected medical schools in the world.
In 1766, Rush left for Scotland. He received his doctor of medicine degree in Scotland in 1768 and spent the next year traveling Europe, where he soon became fluent in Spanish, German, and French. He returned to America in 1769 and began practicing medicine.
He found the colonies increasingly angered at actions by Britain and soon became caught in the excitement, openly criticizing British policies. In addition to his medical practice, he also became a professor of chemistry at what would become the University of Pennsylvania, which had been co-founded by fellow Philadelphia resident and scientist Benjamin Franklin.
Rush developed a friendship with Franklin from their common interests in politics and science. The two often corresponded with each other, discussing scientific and medical questions. One exchange involved discussions on how the common cold was possibly caused by some unknown contagion rather than simply cold air, decades before the germ theory of disease gained wide acceptance in science.
By 1775, Rush had become a member of the Continental Congress as relations with Britain reached the breaking point. While Franklin served as a colonial lobbyist to the British Parliament, he encouraged English writer Thomas Paine to begin corresponding with Rush and eventually move to Philadelphia as well.
Later in 1775, Paine began discussing the issue of independence for the colonies with Rush and how to best convince the public to support the cause. These discussions helped Paine write Common Sense, the influential pamphlet that ultimately swayed most of the public to support independence and the American Revolution.
In 1776, as a member of the Continental Congress, he was one of the co-signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1777, he became a surgeon-general with the Continental Army. He focused on preventative medicine, a new approach meant to maintain health rather than wait for disease to strike. However, with few supplies available, it was difficult to maintain the health of the troops. He clashed with other army doctors, leading him to resign in 1778.
While he was in Britain, he came to despise slavery as he saw how poorly slaves were treated aboard slave ships. He praised efforts to end slavery, even writing a 1773 pamphlet condemning the practice. However, in a bizarre contradiction, he came to own a slave and continued to own one while he joined the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society in the 1780s.
He railed against the death penalty and public beatings as punishments for criminals. His belief in separating criminals from society led to the creation of the first penitentiary in Pennsylvania by 1790.
He was also an early advocate of more humane conditions for the mentally ill, prompting Pennsylvania to build a special ward for mental patients. He also called for an early form of occupational therapy for these patients, believing that while their minds remained occupy, they could begin to heal.
In 1793, he watched Philadelphia suffer under a devastating yellow fever epidemic. He treated as many patients as he could with the little knowledge available at the time. He suspected that mosquitoes played a role with the disease and convinced city officials to reroute a creek in Philadelphia to minimize the impact of the pest. He also established a free pharmacy for the poor of the city, an act that also saved many lives.
In 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson began organizing the famous westward expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, he consulted Rush. The medicines and medical equipment brought by Lewis and Clark were the result of Rush’s suggestions.
Early physicians like Rush often did not understand the nature or the cause of the diseases they were attempting to treat. Rush was among a generation of physicians who attempted to treat illness on the basis of scientific evidence.
Even so, he still made many mistakes. He was a proponent of “bleeding” patients to treat fever and various illnesses, but many physicians were beginning to question the wisdom of the practice. He also prescribed medications containing mercury, a highly toxic substance, which was one of the standard practices of the day. Nevertheless, he helped to push American medicine forward.
Rush contracted typhoid fever in the spring of 1813. He died in April at the age of 67.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a historian, writer and native Texan. He is the author of several books, and his columns appear in dozens of newspapers. Bridges can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.