Benjamin Rush, MD: Physician, Educator, Patriot & Writer

Physician's Money Digest, November15 2003, Volume 10, Issue 21

At our country's infancy,several notable individualsacted in the true spiritof American entrepreneurshipto contribute a variety of skills tothe new country. Physicians wereno exception. Dr. Benjamin Rush, knownas the "Father of American Psychiatry,"was a strong civic leader as well as 1 of themost eminent physicians and authors ofhis day, dedicated to medical educationand improving the medical conditions ofthe new republic.

Covering All Sciences

Born in 1745 to a large family in northeastPhiladelphia, Dr. Rush studied at theCollege of New Jersey (renamed PrincetonUniversity). At age 14, he was the college'syoungest graduate ever. He studied medicineat the College of Philadelphia (Universityof Pennsylvania), attending the firstcourse on anatomy in the United States. Heenrolled in medical school in Edinburgh,Scotland, and received his MD in 1768.

On his return to Philadelphia, Dr. Rushestablished a large practice andlectured at the College of Philadelphia.He was the first professorof chemistry in the UnitedStates, writing the first Americanchemistry textbook for his class. Hewas named professor of the practice ofmedicine and of clinical practice, as well asprofessor in the practice of physic.

One of the best-known teachers in thecountry, he trained thousands of students.He studied and incorporated agriculture,botany, chemistry, and veterinary scienceinto his teachings and medical practice.One of his most notable contributions washis successful treatment of the yellowfever epidemic that spread throughPhiladelphia. He advocated inoculation toprevent diseases and sanitation and quarantineto stop the spread of diseases.

Contributions to Psychology

Dr. Rush was close with many of themovers and shakers of his time, includingBenjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.Not surprisingly, the physician held somevery progressive ideas. At the time, mentalillness was very misunderstood and thetreatment of afflicted patients was inhumaneby any standards.

Observationsand Inquiries Upon theDiseases of the Mind

Dr. Rush was 1 of the few to recognizethat mental illness could be diagnosed,classified, and treated humanely. Instrumentalin upgrading patients' living conditionsand doing away with their lock-and-cuff restraints, he pioneered occupationaltherapy. He proposed that allmental illnesses, including alcoholism,stemmed from physical causes. He publishedthe first US psychiatric book, (1812).

Championing Liberty

In addition to improving conditions forthe mentally ill, Dr. Rush worked toimprove the medical care of all citizens. Asthe first president of the PhiladelphiaMedical Society, he founded the PhiladelphiaDispensary, the United States'first free clinic for the poor. He helpedfound Dickinson College, the PhiladelphiaBible Society, and the Philadelphia Collegeof Physicians, and was a charter trustee ofFranklin & Marshall College.

Dr. Rush was also very active in the newrepublic's politics. He published manyworks promoting American liberty, includingthe abolition of slavery and capitalpunishment, free public schools, the educationof women, and patriotism. Hecofounded America's first antislavery society.He advocated establishing a PeaceOffice in the president's cabinet. Electedas a delegate to the Continental Congress,he was 1 of 4 doctors to sign the Declarationof Independence. He acted as theSurgeon General of the Continental Armyunder George Washington and wasappointed the Treasurer of the US Mint byPresident John Adams.

In the days when silversmiths andfarmers acted as soldiers and statesmen,physicians should be proud that theirprofessional predecessors, too, rose tothe calling to help the United Statescarve a new identity under the bannerof liberty.