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Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush (December 24, 1746 - April 19, 1813) was an outspoken figure of the American Enlightenment who not only served alongside Thomas Jefferson in the Continental Congress but became a crusader for the professional practice of medicine, veterinary science, prison reform, education of women and the abolition of slavery in late 18th and early 19th century America. Rush envisioned the new nation as a continuous revolution, proclaiming in 1788, “There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed… Your country demands your services! … Hear her proclaiming, in sighs and groans, in her governments, in her finances, in her trade, in her manufactures, in her morals, and in her manners, “THE REVOLUTION IS NOT OVER!”1

Born outside Philadelphia, Rush attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and embarked on a medical career. Graduating in 1768 with a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769 radicalized by the Scottish Enlightenment’s Common-Sense Realists, who believed fundamental principles can be taken for granted without needing to give a reason for them, and the principles of heroic medicine, which taught that blood-letting and purging would cure all forms of infectious disease.2 In private practice as a doctor and as Professor of Chemistry at the University of Philadelphia, Rush became a well-known figure in the community and a colleague of Benjamin Franklin.

Drawn into the struggle for independence, Rush was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress and formed life-long friendships with many delegates, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. In late 1775, Rush urged Thomas Paine to write an essay to justify independence in language accessible to the average American.3 Paine’s Common Sense, published in January 1776, played a key role in the final push for independence.  Amid the deliberations to separate from Britain, Rush married Julia Stockton, daughter of his fellow delegate, Richard Stockton, on January 11, 1776. Following his vote for independence he signed the Declaration of Independence and served as Surgeon-General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army, where he laid the foundation for battlefield medicine. Forced to resign his commission as Surgeon-General after criticizing George Washington’s leadership, he returned to Philadelphia, where he taught medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. 

In the 1780s Rush turned his attention to education, founding Dickinson College with John Dickinson, his friend and fellow revolutionary, in 1783 and Franklin & Marshall College in 1787.  He also became involved in abolition (joining the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1784), prison reform (co-founding the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons) and public health (founding the Philadelphia Dispensary in 1786).

In the 1790s Rush attained a global reputation through his efforts to combat the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Although Rush correctly identified yellow fever as the disease ravaging the city in the summer of 1793, his resort to heroic medicine caused controversy in the medical community as his practice of bloodletting and purging likely resulted in more fatalities than the fever alone.4 Rush continued his efforts in social reform, openly accepting the assistance of the Free African Society to tend to the sick in the yellow fever epidemic and aiding Bishop Richard Allen to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794. Elevated to Chairman of Medical Theory and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania in 1796 and appointed Treasurer of the U.S. Mint in 1797, Rush held both these positions until his death.

Rush renewed his friendship with Jefferson through their mutual membership in the American Philosophical Society when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and Jefferson served there as Secretary of State and Vice President.  Among their many contributions to the American Philosophical Society, Rush’s "Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition That the Black Colour (As it is Called) of the Negroes is Derived from Leprosy” and Jefferson’s "Memoir on the Megalonyx" reflect both men’s adherence to the tenets of Scottish Common-Sense Realism over empiricism.5 Rush accurately concluded “claims of superiority of the whites over the blacks are founded alike in ignorance and inhumanity,” but inaccurately concluded that black skin color was the result of inherited leprosy, the cure for which would restore the skin "to a natural white flesh color." In theorizing that black skin is not natural, Rush helped to lay the foundations of eugenics and scientific racism, which enforced false claims of biological white superiority and justified the unequal treatment of people of color, which persists to the present day. Jefferson accurately described every feature of the fossils he had examined (his methodology earning him the title of father of American Paleontology), but inaccurately concluded that they almost certainly were those of a gigantic lion (subsequently identified by other paleontologists as an extinct ground sloth named Megalonyx jeffersonii).6

Between 1800 and his death in 1813, Rush maintained a steady output of lectures compiled in book form advancing his ideas, including the development of veterinary medicine and treating mental illness as a disease.7 At Jefferson’s request, Rush provided medical training to Meriwether Lewis in preparation for the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The Rush-Jefferson correspondence during these years reveals the breadth of their common interests in the fields of medicine, botany, religion and, in Rush’s words “those topics of Science and literature which are calculated to increase the agricultural, domestic & moral happiness of our fellow Citizens..."8

Between February 1811 and February 1812, Rush embarked on a mission to reconcile John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, bitter enemies since the 1800 presidential election. Rush’s letters to Adams and Jefferson convinced both men to renew their friendship and resume their correspondence.  Rush died in Philadelphia from typhus on April 19, 1813. On learning of Rush’s death, Jefferson wrote John Adams “Another of our friends of 76. is gone, my dear Sir, another of the Co-signers of the independance of our country. and a better man, than Rush, could not have left us, more benevolent, more learned, of finer genius, or more honest.”9

- David Thorson, 5/28/20

Further Sources

  • 1. Benjamin Rush, Address to the People of the United States in The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution Digital Edition, ed. John P. Kaminski, Gaspare J. Saladino, Richard Leffler, Charles H. Schoenleber and Margaret A. Hogan (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009), 13:45-49.
  • 2. Rush’s revolutionary ideas on the abolition of slavery, ending capital punishment, treating the mentally ill, development of veterinary science and advancing women’s rights reflect his early schooling in the ideas of Scottish Common-Sense Realism. Thomas Jefferson, taught Common-Sense Realism by the Scottish professor William Small at William & Mary, epitomizes this school of thought in The Declaration of Independence when he wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident …’ See Daniel N. Robinson, "The Scottish Enlightenment and the American Founding," The Monist 90, no. 2 (2007): 170-181.  Rush became the leading advocate of heroic medicine in America and his near-fanatical advocacy of bloodletting, mercury and purgatives became both widespread and the subject of criticism by his fellow doctors. See Robert B. Sullivan, "Sanguine Practices: A Historical and Historiographic Reconsideration of Heroic Therapy in the Age of Rush," Bulletin of the History of Medicine 68, no. 2 (1994): 211-294.
  • 3. See Rush to John Adams, August 14, 1809, Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.  Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. The 10% fatality rate from yellow fever resulted in a death toll of 5000 people in a city of 50,000 inhabitants. Neither Rush nor his competitors realized their treatments had no effect on patient outcomes.  Only the yellow fever vaccine, introduced in 1937, prevents the disease and the mortality rate for the unvaccinated is 10%, just as it was in Philadelphia in 1793. For a thorough review of the impact of the epidemic, the debate over Rush’s treatments, and the social and political consequences of the yellow fever outbreak, see J. Worth Estes and Billy G. Smith, eds., A Melancholy Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic (Canton, MA: Science History Publications, 1997).
  • 5. Benjamin Rush, "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 (1799): 289–297; text available online at the New York Public Library Digital Collections (accessed 5/14/20). Thomas Jefferson, "No. XXX. A Memoir on the Discovery of certain Bones of a Quadruped of the clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 4 (1799): 246-60.
  • 6. See Keith Thompson, "Jefferson’s Old Bones," American Scientist 99, no. 3 (2011): 200; see also annotation to "Memoir on the Megalonyx [10 February 1797]," in PTJ, 29:299-301; transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 7. See Benjamin Rush, "On the Duty and Advantages of Studying the Diseases of Domestic Animals, and the Remedies Proper to Remove Them," in Sixteen Introductory Lectures, to Courses of Lectures Upon the Institutes and Practice of Medicine (Philadelphia: Bradford and Innskeep, 1811), 295-317; and ibid., Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind (Philadelphia: Kimber & Richardson, 1812).
  • 8. Benjamin Rush to Thomas Jefferson, May 3, 1809, in PTJ:RS, 1:185.  Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 9. Jefferson to Adams, May 27, 1813, in PTJ:RS, 6:137. Transcription available at Founders Online.

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