Founding Fathers - Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush

Born: January 4, 1746 (Byberry, Pennsylvania)

Died: April 19, 1813 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)


For our penultimate signer of the Declaration of Independence, this week we turn our attention to another Benjamin.  Not Harrison, who was last week, or Franklin, although both called Philadelphia home, but a doctor who would have a lasting impact on much more than liberty and government.  Benjamin Rush was born in the small township of Byberry, just outside of Philadelphia, as the fourth of seven children of John and Susanna Rush.  John was a farmer and gunsmith who tragically lost his life at the young age of 39 during the summer of 1751, and to provide for her family the widowed Susanna operated a grocery store.  Fortunately for everyone, the venture became quite successful to the point that she was able to expand her business to a second location that sold chinaware.  Young Benjamin and his older brother, Jacob, were sent away two years later to live with an uncle named Samuel Finley who was both a pastor and a schoolmaster.  After getting a quality education at his school, the Nottingham Academy, Benjamin enrolled at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) where he graduated in 1760 at the age of 14.  One year later, uncle Samuel became the president of the university, and had an influence on Benjamin choosing to study medicine.  For five years he studied as an apprentice under Dr. John Redman in Philadelphia before traveling to Scotland in 1766 to pursue a degree from the University of Edinburgh.  During this time, he helped Richard Stockton convince John Witherspoon to accept the position of president of the College of New Jersey to replace Rev. Finley, who had passed away.

In 1768, with a medical degree from Edinburgh in his possession, Dr. Benjamin Rush travelled to London for additional training at St. Thomas' Hospital, which not only allowed him to meet prestigious physicians but also to make the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin.  After a brief visit to Paris, Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769 to begin his own medical practice, and because he did not yet have connections with wealthy colonists he did most of his work with the city's poor residents.  Within a year Rush was additionally employed by the College of Philadelphia as a professor of chemistry in their medical department, where he wrote the first American textbook on the subject.  Before long he had become well-known and beloved by many in Philadelphia, while also serving various roles as a member of the American Philosophical Society.  As discontent with British rule began to grow, Rush joined the Sons of Liberty and encouraged his friend Thomas Paine to write his famous essay, Common Sense.  Early in 1776, he married Julia Stockton, the daughter of friend and fellow patriot Richard Stockton, and the couple had 13 children together.  John Witherspoon officiated the wedding that involved the two men whom he had originally met in Edinburgh a decade earlier, and within months all three of the men - Witherspoon, Stockton, and Rush - would be together in Philadelphia as delegates to the Second Continental Congress. 

Pennsylvania chose Benjamin Rush as one of the replacements to their earlier, more conservative group of delegates in June, 1776, despite his relative youth.  Although just 30 years old, Rush had proven himself a staunch patriot and was proud to affix his name to the Declaration - the only signer to hold a medical degree.  He left Congress a short time later, however, and was selected as surgeon general to the Middle Department of the Continental Army.  Rush wrote one of the leading directions on preserving the health of soldiers, but was shocked by the level of disorganization and corruption displayed by the army's medical services, including his superior, Dr. William Shippen.  When Shippen was vindicated of charges of misappropriation and under-reporting deaths, Rush responded with indignation.  He participated in a movement that sought the removal of George Washington as Commander in Chief, spreading gossip and writing letters to Patrick Henry expressing his views.  Although the letters were unsigned, Washington recognized the handwriting and confronted Rush, who then resigned his position with the military and returned home to his medical practice.  Rush would not return to the political arena until 1789, at which point he actively argued for the passage of the Constitution and was selected to the Pennsylvania convention that eventually voted for its ratification.  From 1797 until his death in 1813, Rush served as the Treasurer of the US Mint.

Apart from his public service, Benjamin Rush was also extremely influential in medical and social reforms.  The condition of American medicine was awful at the end of the 18th century, and Rush himself even subscribed to primitive theoretical practices such as bloodletting and purging.  He did, however, encourage healthy practices such as dress, diet, and exercise, and is still considered the Father of American Psychiatry because of his work on mental illness that approached it as a disease rather than demon possession.  Working among those considered lunatics or insane prompted Rush to favor compassionate care, and his humanitarian efforts included opposing public or capital punishment as well as pursuing prison reform.  Rush's regular writings in his personal record provided the only written first-person account of Philadelphia's yellow fever outbreak of 1762, and he later tested many of his theories during the subsequent epidemic of the same disease in 1793.  Despite criticism that his purging methods were used indiscriminately, Rush was respected for remaining in the city to assist the sick and dying, even when contracting the disease himself.  He helped found Dickinson College in 1783, as well as the Bible Society at Philadelphia in 1808.  Rush sought to eliminate certain evils in society by promoting temperance and the abolition of slavery, and believed that educating the masses, including women, and providing clinical care for the poor were critically important.  While on staff at the Pennsylvania Hospital he even opened the Philadelphia Dispensary in 1786, America's first pharmacy dedicated to serving the poor.  Although many of his views seem outdated or even racist today, such as the opinion that black skin was the result of disease, Rush was nevertheless an ardent believer in the value of other races.  His studies into the health of Native Americans and their increased mortality rates led to a better understanding of their medicinal healing practices and advances in American pharmacology.  Ultimately, it was Rush's determination to serve those who were ill that caused his death, as he succumbed to typhus fever at the age of 67 while fighting an outbreak of the disease in Philadelphia.  America's most famous physician was laid to rest in Christ Church Burial Ground alongside four other signers.

The signature of Benjamin Rush can be found as the second name in the fourth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.

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