Founding Fathers Friday: Benjamin Rush

by Derrick G. Jeter

Benjamin Rush believed in the medicinal properties of disambiguation—bloodletting. It was said that he drained half of Philadelphia . . . and they lived to tell about. That was the joke. The reality wasn’t so funny.
At an early age, Rush was left fatherless. His single mother worked—as most single mothers do—ceaselessly and with tireless devotion to her two sons. As the owner of a small grocery, Mrs. Rush earned just enough money to send young Benjamin to school. He chose medicine. Studying at home and then abroad in London and Paris, when Rush returned to the colonies he couldn’t have foreseen that he would one day become one of the most famous physicians and medical professors in fledgling republic of the United States of America, drawing students as far away as Europe. But his real fame came, not as a doctor, but as a politician . . . and as a penman.
Rush was an early patriot, writing pro-colonialist articles for Philadelphia newspapers. A friend of Thomas Paine, the famed pamphleteer, it is said that Rush suggested Paine title his most famous pamphlet, “Common Sense.” When some of the original Pennsylvania delegation refused to vote for independence and withdrew from Congress, Rush was appointed to fill one of the seats. His appointment came too late to cast his vote for independence, but not too late to put his name to the engrossed Declaration on August 2, 1776. Reminiscing to John Adams about that day, Rush wrote: “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 Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”
A year after the signing, Rush was appointed physician-general of the hospitals of the Middle Department. But it was here that Rush’s pen got him into trouble. Observing the medical proceedings, Rush wrote a letter to George Washington criticizing his superior, Dr. William Shippen, blaming him for poor conditions. Washington sent the letter to Congress, which eventually decided that the conditions weren’t as poor as Rush claimed. In protest, Rush resigned his post.
A keen observer of human behavior, Rush couldn’t keep himself from sharing his thoughts about various characters’ character. George Ross had a great sense of humor. Samuel Chase had a questionable background. Abraham Clark was a cynical man. And Benedict Arnold was both ungrammatical in his speech and vulgar—even before he became a traitor. Unfortunately for Rush, he should have gotten better control of his pen because there was one character whose character he should have never assassinated. In January 1778, after Washington was defeated at Brandywine and Germantown, Rush wrote a letter to Patrick Henry, a friend of Washington’s and the governor of Virginia, suggesting that the Continental Army would be better off with a different general. Rush proposed that Thomas Conway, Horatio Gates, or Charles Lee would make a better leader than Washington. Known as the “Conway Cabal,” Rush feed the political and military fire of those who wanted to replace Washington. The letter was sent anonymously, but when it was forwarded to Washington (presumably by Henry), Washington recognized the handwriting. The handwriting on the wall for Rush was “Your military career is over!”
Regardless of Rush’s runaway pen, he was a solid and steady physician for his times. He was, however, criticized in newspapers for his practice of bloodletting, which was an ancient and widely accepted practice, as having killed more patients than he cured. Rush sued for libel, but repeated delays pushed a decision on the case out until late 1799. By that time, George Washington had died, after a Rush protege had drained five to nine pints of blood, through the use of leeches, from the retired and ailing president. This didn’t effect Rush’s libel suit, which he won, but his medical practice suffered as a result of the news. President John Adams, Rush’s friend, appointed him as treasurer of the U.S. Mint after his practice fell off—a post Rush held until his death in 1813.
Despite the unsavory practice of bloodletting, Rush was a true humanitarian. He often teated patients for free. He established the first free medical clinic in the United States, the Philadelphia Dispensary. And when the city of Philadelphia fled in fear of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, Dr. Rush stayed and cared for the poor souls who where suffering. He used his pen for better purposes when he wrote one of the first textbooks in America on mental illness: Medical Inquiries and Observations upon Diseases of the Mind. This, and other works in the field of mental health, earned him the distinction of “The Father of American Psychiatry.” And in 1803, before Meriwether Lewis set out with William Clark to explore the newly purchased Louisiana territories, Rush concocted anti-bilious pills known as “Rush’s Thunderbolts” to be given to the men in case of on-setting illness. It’s not proved that the pills prevented disease, but they did keep the men’s plumbing well-purged.
Late in life, in 1809, Rush put his pen to work once again. And this time to good effect. He had had a dream that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—the voice and the pen of independence—who by this time had had a falling out, had reconciled their political differences and had enjoyed a long and intimate correspondence, terminating only at their deaths, “nearly at the same time.” Rush shared this dream with both Adams and Jefferson. And in a twist of historic irony, his dream came true. Adams and Jefferson rekindled their friendship and sent hundreds of letters back-and-forth between Monticello and Peacefield. Their correspondence ended when both men died on the same day—that day of days for American patriots: July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
During the war, Rush predicted that “All will end well.” He was correct. Of himself, he wrote, “He aimed well.” When Rush died, “every citizen,” and early biography recorded, “felt that a dear friend had been taken away, and a general gloom overspread the community.”
Why such a gloomy response to the death of a signer who has sliced many a man with his pen? Because, as that same old biography reminds us: “As a patriot, Doctor Rush was firm and inflexible; as a professional man he was skillful, candid, and honorable; as a thinker and writer, he was profound; as a Christian, zealous and consistent; and in his domestic relations, he was the centre of a circle of love and true affection.”
I’d say that’s not just aiming well, that’s hitting the mark well.