Who Was Benjamin Rush?
Benjamin Rush was an American physician, politician and educator who is best known for his activities during the American Revolution and for signing the Declaration of Independence. Rush studied at Princeton University and then went on for a medical degree at Edinburgh University. He subsequently returned to Philadelphia to begin his medical practice and pursue publishing. A member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush also founded Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
One of seven children, Benjamin Rush was born in Byberry Township, outside of Philadelphia, on January 4, 1746. Rush's father died when Rush was 6 years old, and Rush was soon put under the tutelage of his uncle, Reverend Samuel Finley. Finley would later be president of the College of New Jersey, which would eventually become Princeton University.
Intending to pursue a career as a lawyer, Rush attended the College of New Jersey and received his B.A. in 1760, when he was but 14 years old. Changing paths quickly, however, he moved to Philadelphia and began training as a physician. Here he came under the influence of the leading minds in the medical field, such as John Redman and William Shippen Jr.
The Influential Dr. Rush
Redman saw potential in Rush and urged him to go to Scotland, a hive of developing medical knowledge, and Rush went on to earn his M.D. from the University of Edinburgh. His subsequent travels across Europe brought Benjamin Franklin to his acquaintance, and the two men would remain lifelong friends.
In 1769, when Rush returned to Philadelphia, he opened his medical practice and was appointed as chair of chemistry in the medical department of the College of Philadelphia, making him the first professor of chemistry in America, at the young age of 23. Rush also kept busy outside of medicine, publishing a tract on the evils of the enslaved people trade and helping organize 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.
Rush also became active in the colonies' struggle for independence and was a major influence on Thomas Paine in the writing of his classic text on American independence, Common Sense.
The Revolution and Beyond
Rush officially went down in U.S. history as a founding father when he became one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and he carried his medical knowledge with him through the war effort as surgeon general of the Middle Department of the army.
After the war, Rush returned to his medical practice and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. In all, Rush is said to have taught 3,000 medical students, doctors who went on to establish the medical profession in the United States. In 1783, he also chartered the first college in the newly formed United States, Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Rush is also known for his efforts to reform care given to the mentally ill, and he eschewed many primitive contemporary "treatments" in favor of careful clinical observation and study. This approach, paired with his Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, the first textbook on psychiatry published in America, led the American Psychiatric Association to dub Rush the "father of American psychiatry."
Rush and his wife, Julia, had 13 children. He died of typhus fever in Philadelphia on April 19, 1813, and was buried at the Christ Church Burial Ground.
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