Part 4: Dr. Rush's Other Cure-all

Part 4 of 6 of an interview with David Peck, D.O.


Now, at that time in medical science there was believed to be contagion, which were things that could be caught from another person, and there were other diseases which were deemed to be not contagious. The treatments at that time for disease included sweating, which could be induced by various medications, or urination or diuresis produced by things like saltpeter. They also could blister a patient by applying ground up blister beetles onto their skin, which would produce blisters. They thought at that time that would relieve congested internal organs, which they had no idea of how they functioned in most cases. One of the very popular treatments at that time was bloodletting.

Now, bloodletting had been practiced for centuries, in fact, since ancient times. But, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was the leading physician in America, had given a new justification for the practice. In the 1700's the leading medical people of the world had made some elementary discoveries of the human nervous system. One of the leading men of the time was a medical professor at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, named William Cullen. William Cullen believed that life consisted in what he called a "state of nervous excitement," and that disease was a result of spasms of the nervous system. His protege, Dr. John Brown, developed a corollary to that theory. He stated that disease was either insufficient or excessive nervous excitation. His treatments were designed to correct those excesses or deficiencies. His two favorite drugs, in fact, were opium and alcohol. Unfortunately, John Brown died at the age of 53, a hopeless opium addict and alcoholic.

Benjamin Rush, in the early 1790's developed his very own theory of disease. He took the teachings of Cullen and Brown and added to them his own bent on disease. He believed that the nervous system had a tremendous influence on disease, but, he believed that the nervous system excited the circulatory system and put it into a state of spasm which he called hypertension, which is our modern day word for high blood pressure. Rush believed that this was the cause of most illness. It didn't matter what it was. It could be insanity or all the various fevers that existed at that time. But Rush believed that in order to successfully treat disease, some of that irritating substance within the blood vessels had to be removed, and of course that would be blood. So what he would do is, he would make an incision in a vein with a blade called a lancet, and remove a prescribed amount of blood that he thought was proper. His determination would be by feeling the patient's pulse and also the pre-existing disease. He would often bleed his patients more than once a day. He would remove up to what he called four-fifths of a body's blood in a series of bloodlettings. His proof that his bloodletting was working was that a patient who received this treatment would relax. In fact, he had a great quote, that said; "hemorrhages seldom occur where bleeding has been sufficiently copious." If you bleed a patient out and there is no blood left, of course there is nothing left to hemorrhage. So, Benjamin Rush became an avid and aggressive blood-letter for a variety of reasons. Bloodletting continued in the United States almost up to the time of the Civil War, probably largely under the influence of Dr. Benjamin Rush.

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