Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and “Father of American Psychiatry”

Although he had his detractors, Benjamin Rush was considered (USHistory.org) an “eminent physician, writer, educator, humanitarian, and as interesting a figure as one could find in the formation of the United States. A wildly popular and much loved man, he was nonetheless a fallible character. He was born in December of 1745 in Byberry, Pennsylvania, some twelve miles from Philadelphia. His father died when Benjamin was six, and his mother placed him in the care of his maternal uncle Dr. Finley, who became his teacher and advisor for many years. In 1759 he attended the College of Philadelphia, where he ultimately attained a Bachelor of Arts degree. He continued his education with a Dr. Redman of Philadelphia for four years and then crossed the Atlantic to attend to an M.D. at Edinburgh. He spent several years in Europe studying and practicing medicine, French, Italian, Spanish, and science. He returned in 1769, opened a private practice in Philadelphia, and was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia.”

He was close friends with Thomas Paine. From Signing Their Lives Away (from Denise Kernan and Joseph D’Agnest, page 128), we find an example of Rush’s ability to describe the reality (from a letter he wrote to John Adams): “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up one after another, to the table of the President of the Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”

Rush was beloved in the city for his work among the poor classes,[establishing the first free medical clinic in America, the Philadelphia Dispensary. He tended patients in the 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia, even succumbing to the disease himself. Rush also proved a popular professor at the college. Eventually, “Rush published the first American textbook on Chemistry. In 1773, he contributed editorial assays to the papers about the Patriot cause and also joined the American Philosophical Society. He was active in the Sons of Liberty in Philadelphia during that time. In June of 1776 he was elected to attend the provincial conference to send delegates to the Continental Congress. He was appointed to represent Philadelphia that year and so signed the Declaration of Independence.” (USHistory.org)

File:Dr Benjamin Rush.png - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia en.wikipedia.org

File:Dr Benjamin Rush.png – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
en.wikipedia.org

The following year, he served as surgeon-general of the middle department of the Continental Army. Not all was to Rush’s liking during this tenure. “He was critical of the administration of the Army Medical service under Dr. William Shippen. He complained to Washington, who deferred to the Congress. Ultimately Congress upheld Shippen and Rush resigned in disgust. As the war continued and Army forces under General Washington suffered a series of defeats, Rush secretly campaigned for removal of Washington as commander in chief, and went so far as to write an anonymous letter to then Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia. He was caught in the act and confronted by Washington, at which point he bowed out of any activities related to the war.” (USHistory.org)

Signing Their Lives Away (page 128) provides us with a bit more information on the incident with Washington. “But the writing that had the greatest negative effect on his career came after the Continental Arm had been defeated at Brandywine and Germantown. Rush had penned more than one letter criticizing General Washington, but the one he wrote in January 1778 to Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia suggesting that the army would be better off with Thomas Conway, Horatio Gates, or Charles Lee as a leader would forever associate Rush with ‘Conway Cabal,’ an episode of political and military back-and-forth that aimed to have Washington replaced as head of the colonial armies. Rush sent the letter anonymously, but when it made its way into Washington’s hands, the general recognized the handwriting.” 

He took a public stance in favor of the Federal constitution and served the Pennsylvania convention that approved the constitution in 1789. Later, Rush served as Treasurer of the U. S. Mint (1797-1813). In 1791, he became a professor of medical theory and clinical practice for the newly consolidated University of Pennsylvania. He was also a social activist, a prominent advocate for the abolition of slavery, an advocate for scientific education for the masses, including women, and for public medical clinics to treat the poor.

“Benjamin Rush was a regular writer, and many notes about the less well known signers of the Declaration come from his observations on the floor of Congress. Other members of Congress, Franklin, and John Adams foremost, had some harsh observations to make about Rush. He was handsome, well-spoken, a gentleman and a very attractive figure-he was also a gossip and was quick to rush to judgement about others. He was supremely confident of his own opinion and decisions, yet shallow and very unscientific in practice. His chief accomplishment as a physician was in the practice of bleeding the patient [and his use of mercury]. It was said that he considered bleeding to be a cure for nearly any ailment. Even when the practice began to decline, he refused to reconsider the dangers of it.” (USHistory.org)

“Despite the fact that bloodletting was a common medical practice since ancient times, he [Rush] was attacked in print by a newsman, who said Rush’s treatments had killed more patients than they saved. Rush sued for libel, but prosecution of the case was repeatedly delayed. The case wasn’t settled until late 1799, but George Washington’s death – which occurred December 14, 1799, before the libel case was settled – exacerbated Rush’s woes. Though Rush did not attend Washington at his deathbed, one of Rush’s disciples did, using leeches to suck five to nine pints of blood from poor old George. People blamed Rush’s teachings for Washington’s death. Rush finally won the law suit, but his medical practice suffered…” (Signing Their Lives Away, page 129)

“Rush penned America’s first textbook about mental ailments, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind, and his work in the field of mental health earned him the moniker ‘The Father of American Psychiatry.’ (In keeping with his tendency to implement dubious medical treatments, Rush also contributed the ‘tranquilizing chair’ to the psychiatric community, a restraining and sensory-deprivation device that bound limbs and fitted a box with a small opening over patients’ heads, ‘calming’ them by restricting blood flow to their brains.) He was even visited in 1803 by Meriwether Lewis. The legendary explorer would later pack Dr. Rush’s anti-bilious pills nicknamed ‘Rush’s Thunderbolts,’ on his great journey west.” (Signing Their Lives Away, page 130)

Ironically, it was Rush who brought the feud between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to an end. According to Kiernan and D’Agnest (page 130), Rush had a dream in which Jefferson and Adams ended their quarrel and reestablished a “friendly” correspondence. Rush also predicted that the two would died at “nearly the same time.” Rush shared this dream with the pair, who did reconcile their differences and who died on the same day, 4 July 1826. 

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in American History, British history, Declaration of Independence, Great Britain, real life tales and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence and “Father of American Psychiatry”

  1. junewilliams7 says:

    Yikes! Bleeding and administering mercury likely led to the death of some of his patients. That “tranquilizing chair” sounds like a nightmare. But I am thankful for what he did for Jefferson and Adams, and for his courage in signing the Declaration. Thank you for the interesting history lesson!

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