Biography and Impacts of Benjamin Rush

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Benjamin Rush was a prolific American physician, writer educator, and humanitarian who worked extensively to advocate the abolition of slavery, scientific endeavors for both men and women and the building of public medical clinics that would be available even to the poor. Among his achievements, he is most known for his political activities such as signing the Declaration of Independence but as the United States Surgeon General, he would also save countless lives during the American Revolutionary war by reforming hygiene in the medical field. He pushed to introduce new medical treatments and established the first free medical clinic in the United States after his service in the military. [1]

On January 4, 1746, Rush was born in Byberry, Pennsylvania into a pious Presbyterian family.[2] In 1760, he graduated from Princeton, was a medical apprentice for 6 years where he was under the influence of leading minds such as John Redman. Redman saw potential in Rush and urged him to go overseas to Scotland where medical advancements and knowledge was prevalent. Rush then earned his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh in 1768 and later worked in London hospitals such as the St. Thomas’s Hospital for a little while. His travels across Europe let him be acquainted with Benjamin Franklin and they became lifelong friends. In 1769, he would return home to practice medicine and was appointed professor of chemistry in the College of Philadelphia and published the first American textbook in Chemistry titled Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Chemistry. Due to his literary output and professional prestige, he published many medical imprints and influential patriotic essays and continuously communicated with various newspapers and magazines where he was widely prevalent in. Rush’s prestige is contributed to having some 3,000 students that he taught during his time as an educator of chemistry and both the theory and practice of medicine in the College of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.[3]

In the early 1770s, Rush’s Republican background led him to pursue more humanitarian issues and he became a member of the American Philosophical Society and aided in the organization of the first anti-slavery society in America, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage.[4] He was absorbed in the idealism of the American Revolution and used his literary prowess to publish books on slavery and the growing political crisis between American and Great Britain while maintain constant correspondence with other American revolutionists such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. In June 1776, he joined the Provincial Congress and was one of the leading advocates of independence. Not so long after, he joined the Pennsylvania delegation to the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.[5]

Rush was also politically active in the push for American independence and was a major influence on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a pamphlet published in 1776 on the advocation of independence from Great Britain to peoples in the Thirteen colonies.[6] In April 1777, Benjamin was appointed to be surgeon-general for the Middle Department by the Congress and upon finding the medical service to be in wretched condition, he implemented directions to maintain and preserve the health of soldiers which became the basis of preventative military medicine. He later accused Dr. Shippen, the former Director of the Continental Army, of maladministration in an impolitic manner and wrote a letter of complaint to George Washington who deferred to Congress but they determined Dr. Shippen to be competent and Rush resigned his commission out of protest. Benjamin felt abandoned by Washington and expressed his resentment by secretly campaigning for his removal as commander in chief and wrote an anonymous letter to Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia. Henry passed the letter to Washington who recognized Rush’s handwriting and accused him of disloyalty. Dr. Shippen dought

From the 1780’s and forward, he would to education field to deliver lectures at the University of the State of Pennsylvania and work at the Pennsylvania Hospital until his death in 1813. His interest in social reform was reignited and started to work more closely with the poor and pushed to building public medical centers that would be accessible to all. As a physician, he strived to provide a unitary explanation of disease and he theorized that all disease in the world are all just a fever brought upon by overstimulation of blood vessels which he would remedy with bloodletting and purges which he called “heroic” medicine. His so-called medicine would be tested during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 but he failed to keep any detailed records of his cases. He was criticized by some that there was a correlation between increase of blood loss and increase in mortality and his methods were soon less favored by the American medical community. Nonetheless, he maintained his reputation and continued to use “heroic” medicine even after others have long abandoned his approach. In the field of psychiatry however, his contributions were more substantial. He worked with many insane patients and advocated humane treatment with the basis that mental illness often proceeded from physical causes rather than possession of devils which was the more popular notion at the time and were just as subject to the healing arts as physical ones.[7] He published the first American treatise on psychiatry in 1812, “Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Diseases of the Mind’ and is considered the father of American psychiatry.[8]


  • “Benjamin Rush.” A&E Networks Television, September 3, 2019.

[1] “Science and Technology in the United States.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 21, 2019.

[2] “Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Benjamin Rush.” Independence Hall Association, July 4, 1994.

[3] Butterfield, Lyman H. “Benjamin Rush.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d.

[4] “Benjamin Rush.” A&E Networks Television, September 3, 2019.

[5] “Benjamin Rush.” History Is Fun, n.d.

[6] “Benjamin Rush.” A&E Networks Television, September 3, 2019.

[7] “Dr. Benjamin Rush.” Pennsylvania Hospital History: Stories - Dr. Benjamin Rush, n.d.

[8] Butterfield, Lyman H. “Benjamin Rush.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d.

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