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Biographical Sketches

Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Rush

Doctor, medical educator, chemist, humanitarian, politician, author, reformer-moralist, soldier, temperance advocate, abolitionist—Benjamin Rush was all of these. One of the younger signers, only 30 years of age at the time, he was already a physician of note.

Rush, the fourth of seven children, was born in 1745 at Byberry ("The Homestead"), near Philadelphia. At the age of 5, his farmer gunsmith father died. The youth obtained a sound education at West Nottingham Academy, in Rising Sun, Md., operated by an uncle, and graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). Returning to Philadelphia in 1760, he apparently first considered studying law but chose medicine. In 1766, at the end of a 5-year apprenticeship to a local physician, he sailed to Scotland, where 2 years later the University of Edinburgh awarded him a medical degree.

While there, assisted by a fellow college alumnus and one-day fellow signer, Richard Stockton, Rush helped overcome the objections of John Witherspoon's wife and persuaded Witherspoon to accept the presidency of the College of New Jersey. In 1769, after further training in London, where Rush made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, and a short visit to Paris, he came back to Philadelphia and set up practice. Before the year was out, he obtained the first professorship of chemistry in the country at the College of Philadelphia, and wrote the first American textbook on the subject.

While prospering as a physician, Rush cultivated the friendship of such men as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine. In fact, Rush suggested to the latter that he write his famous tract Common Sense (1776), supplied the title, and aided in its publication. He also contributed political articles to the press. That same year, he married Stockton's eldest daughter, Julia.

Rush's tour in the Continental Congress was brief. In June 1776 he attended a Pennsylvania conference of patriots and helped draft a declaration of the colony's support for national independence. In recognition of these services, the following month the provincial convention sent him to Congress—after the adoption of the Declaration. In December, Philadelphia threatened by British invasion, the Government fled to Baltimore. Rush apparently, however, did not spend much time there. That same month, he relocated his wife at the home of a relative in Cecil County, Md., and took part in General Washington's New Jersey campaign as a surgeon in the Philadelphia militia.

In April 1777, not reelected to Congress because of his opposition to the Pennsylvania constitution of the previous year, Rush accepted the position of surgeon general in the Middle Department of the Continental Army. Abhorring the deplorable conditions prevailing in the medical service, in a complaint to Washington he accused his superior, Dr. William Shippen, of maladministration. Washington referred the matter to Congress, which vindicated Shippen. In January 1778 Rush angrily resigned. His subsequent criticisms of Washington and his participation in the Conway Cabal, a movement to replace General Washington, ended his military and, for a time, his political career. He resumed his medical practice in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Rush long served on the staff of Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hospital, shown here in 1799. Founded in 1751 and still in use today, it is the oldest hospital in the United States. (Engraving, 1799, by William Birch & Son, Library of Congress.)

In 1787 Rush wrote tracts in the newspapers endorsing the U.S. Constitution. In the Commonwealth ratifying convention that same year, he aided James Wilson in the struggle for its adoption. In 1789-90 Rush attended the Pennsylvania constitutional convention. From 1797 until 1813 he served as Treasurer of the U.S. Mint.

Meantime Rush, through his writings and lectures, had become probably the best known physician and medical teacher in the land, and he fostered Philadelphia's ascendancy as the early medical center of the Nation. His students, who idolized him, came from as far away as Europe to attend his classes at the College of Philadelphia, and its successors the University of the State of Pennsylvania and the University of Pennsylvania (1791). He also served on the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital from 1783 until the end of his life, helped found the Philadelphia College of Physicians (1787), and held office as first president of the Philadelphia Medical Society. In 1786 he founded the Philadelphia Dispensary, the first free medical clinic in the country. His work among the insane at the Pennsylvania Hospital resulted in Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind (1812), which to some degree foreshadowed modern psychiatric techniques.

Rush won much less favor from his professional peers than he did from his students. His critics particularly attacked his theory of bleeding and purging for the treatment of disease. Although he was one of the few doctors who remained in Philadelphia during the devastating yellow fever epidemics of 1793 and 1798, his opponents criticized his methods of treatment.

Aroused by the idealism of the Revolution as well as the plight of the poor and sick he encountered in his medical practice, Rush helped pioneer various humanitarian and social movements that were to restructure U.S. life in the 19th century. These included abolition of slavery and educational and prison reform. Rush also condemned public and capital punishment and advocated temperance. Many of his reform articles appeared in Essays: Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (1798).

Finally, Rush helped organize and sat as a trustee of Dickinson College (1783); aided in founding the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (1787) and later served as its president; enjoyed membership in the American Philosophical Society; and was a cofounder and vice president of the Philadelphia Bible Society, which advocated the use of scripture in the public schools.

A typhus epidemic claimed Rush's life at the age of 67 in 1813. Surviving him were six sons and three daughters of the 13 children he had fathered. His grave is in Christ Church Burial Ground at Philadelphia.

Drawing: Oil, 1783, by Charles Willson Peale, The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, Del. Gift of Mrs. Julia B. Henry.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004