American physician, teacher, and statesman known as the "father of American psychiatry" for his work with the mentally ill.
Benjamin Rush was born near Philadelphia. He attended the College of New Jersey (the future Princeton University), intending to enter the ministry. Finally deciding in favor of medicine, Rush began his medical studies in Philadelphia, serving a six-year apprenticeship to a local physician. He then enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where many American physicians received their training at the time. Rush earned his M.D. degree in 1768, having concentrated in the study of chemistry. Returning to America, he began his own private practice the following year, when he was also appointed to a teaching position at the College of Philadelphia, becoming the first professor of chemistry in North America and authoring the first chemistry text by an American (Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Chemistry). Rush's medical practice grew rapidly. He was known in particular for his strong endorsement of the contemporary practice of treating fevers by bloodletting and purges, as a result of his conviction that fevers resulted from arterial tension which could only be relieved by bloodletting. In severe cases, he recommended that as much as four-fifths of the patient's blood be drained.
Rush played a prominent role in the American Revolution. In 1776, he served as a member of the Continental Congress, and was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He also served from 1776 to 1778 as Physician General of the Continental Army. Rush was an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. Constitution and a member of the Pennsylvania Convention that ratified it.
In 1787, Rush took charge of the treatment of mental patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital, beginning the work that eventually earned him the title "father of American psychiatry." While his treatment methods—which included
bloodletting, purging, intimidation, hot and cold baths, and chair restraints—can hardly be considered clinical advances, Rush's view of mental disease represented a major advance in the understanding of that subject. He believed that insanity often has a physical cause, and that mental illnesses, like physical illnesses, may be as treatable. Through his insistence that insanity was a disease requiring treatment rather than a crime calling for imprisonment, Rush helped bring mental health under the domain of medicine. He also authored the first psychiatry book written by an American, Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind, in 1812.
In addition to his contributions to medicine and politics, Rush worked on behalf of many social issues of his day, including the establishment of public schools, education for women, prison reform, and the abolition of slavery and capital punishment. He was in the forefront of the struggle against Philadelphia's yellow-fever epidemics of the 1790s. Although he did note the apparent connection between the disease and the presence of mosquitoes, he continued to advocate bloodletting as the primary method of treatment, unfortunately influencing several generations of physicians who treated similar epidemics in the nineteenth century. (He fell ill when he used his treatment method on himself in 1793.) Rush's name is also linked with physicians' rights in relation to freedom of the press. Attacked in the newspapers for his controversial medical and political views, he sued his detractors and was awarded damages by a Pennsylvania court.
In 1789, Rush gave up his chemistry professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in order to begin teaching medicine, which he continued to do for the remainder of his career, serving as a mentor to a generation of medical students. In 1797, he was appointed to the position of treasurer at the United States Mint and held that office until his death in 1813. Rush's other books include Medical Inquiries and Observations (1794-98) and Essays: Literary, Moral and Philosophical (1798).
Binger, Carl A. Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush. New York: Norton, 1966.
Weisberger, Bernard A. "The Paradoxical Doctor Benjamin Rush." American Heritage 27 (1975): 40-47, 98-99.