December 24, 1745 in Pennsylvania
April 19, 1813
humanitarian, patriot, physician, signer of Declaration of Independence
Rush, Benjamin (Dec. 24, 1745 o.s. - Apr. 19, 1813), physician, patriot, and humanitarian, was born on a plantation near Philadelphia, in the agricultural community of Byberry, the fourth of the seven children of John and Susanna (Hall) Harvey Rush. He was descended from John Rush, a yeoman from Oxfordshire, who came to Byberry in 1683. His father, a gunsmith and farmer, died when Benjamin was but five years old. At eight he was sent to school with an uncle by marriage, Samuel Finley [q.v.], and then to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), where he received the A.B. degree in 1760. Upon returning to Philadelphia Rush first thought of studying law, but changed his mind in favor of medicine. He was a student under Dr. John Redman from 1761 to 1766 and, in addition to this apprenticeship, attended the first lectures of Dr. William Shippen and Dr. John Morgan in the College of Philadelphia.
During these years he displayed an interest in public affairs, was swayed by Whitefield's preaching, and aroused to youthful patriotism by the Stamp Act controversy; but revivals and politics were forgotten in the zest of professional adventure. On Dr. Redman's advice, he sailed in 1766 to complete his medical education at the University of Edinburgh. There he sat under such masters as Monro, SECUNDUS, Joseph Black, and John Gregory, and became the friend and disciple of the great William Cullen. He also found time in the society of fellow students to doubt and debate all things, and so became something of a republican and a philosopher as well as a physician. He received his doctor's degree in June 1768, and immediately went to London for further training in St. Thomas's Hospital. In London he was on friendly terms with Benjamin Franklin, in whose society he learned, among many things, the art of being agreeable.
After a short visit to Paris, Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769, and at once began to practise medicine. Although he claimed to be without influential friends, he had already arranged an appointment as professor of chemistry in the College of Philadelphia, the first such chair established in the colonies. While holding it Rush published the first American text in that subject, A SYLLABUS OF A COURSE OF LECTURES ON CHEMISTRY (1770, reissued 1773). His practice grew, at first largely among the poor; but within five years he had a very fair income. Rush attracted attention by his unusual ability and training, and also as the practitioner of a new "system." Instead of that of the famous Dr. Hermann Boerhaave, he preached the system of his master, Cullen, with such a scorn for the "old school" that he alienated many of his collegues. He began writing almost at once, and in 1772 published anonymously one of the first American works on personal hygiene, SERMONS TO GENTLEMEN UPON TEMPERANCE AND EXERCISE (London, 1772).
Meanwhile he had become a member of the American Philosophical Society and cultivated other than purely professional interests. In 1773 he published AN ADDRESS TO THE INHABITANTS OF THE BRITISH SETTLEMENTS IN AMERICA, UPON SLAVE-KEEPING, and in 1774 helped to organize the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Maintaining his interest in the quarrel between the colonies and the mother country, he wrote articles for the local press, and associated with such patriot leaders as Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. When war began he offered his services in the patriot cause. While waiting for action, he was married, on Jan. 11, 1776, to Julia Stockton, eldest daughter of Richard Stockton of Princeton. In June he was elected to the Provincial Conference, in which he was a leader in declaring for independence, and a month later was made a member of the Continental Congress. He thus became a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
In April 1777 he was appointed surgeon-general of the armies of the Middle Department. Finding the medical service in a deplorable condition he protested to General Washington, accusing Dr. Shippen, the director general, of maladministration. Washington referred the matter to Congress, which decided in favor of Shippen, and Rush resigned in consequence. Washington's defeats near Philadelphia, in addition to his own personal experiences, now led Rush to question the general's ability; and caused him to be associated indirectly with the Conway Cabal (Rush Manuscripts, XXIX, 136, Ridgway Library). He finally wrote an anonymous letter to Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia, urging that Washington be replaced by Gates or Conway. Henry forwarded this to Washington, who recognized Rush's excellent hand and accused him of personal disloyalty. (Rush's letter, dated Yorktown, Jan. 12, 1778, is printed in John Marshall, THE LIFE OF WASHINGTON, 2 ed., 1832, vol. I, note 12, pp. 29, 30.)
This affair ended Rush's military career, and he returned to his practice in Philadelphia. In the new University of the State of Pennsylvania, opened in 1778, he began to deliver lectures in 1780. In 1783, he became a member of the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital and served in that capacity for the rest of his life. Here he saw something of the needs of the sick and the poor, and this aroused again his interest in social reform. Stirred, moreover, by the idealism of the Revolution, he now became a sponsor of the various ameliorative movements which were to remould America in the ensuing century. He established the first free dispensary in the country (1786), became president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (1803), condemned public and capital punishments, and demanded real "penitentiaries" by way of prison reform. His advocacy of temperance was so effective that he has been formally recognized as the "instaurator" of the American temperance movement. His republican enthusiasm led him to favor an improved education for girls, a comprehensive system of schools culminating in a national university, and a theory of education which gave greater freedom to children and encouraged their training in science and utilitarian subjects rather than in the traditional disciplines. Practising what he preached, he persuaded the Presbyterians to found Dickinson College (1783), and served as one of its trustees. Most of his essays on social reform appeared in magazines of Philadelphia, and were later collected and published in 1798 under the title of ESSAYS, LITERARY, MORAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL. While these were extravagantly praised by contemporaries as masterpieces of prose, they have long since been subjected to a similarly extreme neglect by American readers.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.