Benjamin Rush (1746-1820)

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Rush at Age 37

Dr. Benjamin Rush, by Charles Willson Peale (1783)

Dr. Rush at 37

Courtesy Winterthur Museum, Gift of Mrs. Julia B. Henry (1959)

Oil on canvas, 55 x 44½ in.

At the time of Lewis's visit in 1803, Rush had been in practice in Philadelphia for 34 years and had long been a champion of public and humanitarian causes. The ink was scarcely dry on his Travels Through Life, an autobiographic account written for the interest of his family. In it he described a period in the decade just ended when his practice had been "confined chiefly to my old patients, to strangers & the poor," and in the words of a biographer, "His unbounded optimism had given way to resignation tinged with embitterment."1 Many of his colleagues had become critical of the "depletion" therapies he had first adopted in the catastrophic yellow fever epidemic of 1793 but more destructive were the attacks on his work and his political affiliations by the skillful journalist-satirist Cobbett. Though Rush was a popular hero for remaining to serve in the city during the epidemics, especially that of 1783, the onslaught on his reputation was so effective that at one point Rush thought of moving from Philadelphia. Several acute episodes of illness in recent years had convinced him that his death was not distant.

He had weathered all that. It is unlikely that Lewis found him other than forthcoming. Rush was known—and by some disliked—for never being at a loss for words. He wrote voluminously, declaring that the effort of writing dispelled the drowsiness of a late hour, of dinner, or of summer heat.2 Peale's portrait of Rush twenty years before, at age 37, appropriately portrays him with pen in hand.

Rush was of course familiar with death and enterprises of uncertain outcome. As one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, he had described "the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another . . . to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants." He was present at the second day of the Battle of Trenton where "for the first time war appeared to me in its awful plenitude of horrors." After the Battle of Princeton he treated his dying friend Hugh Mercer, and mourned a young British officer he had known while a medical student in Edinburgh.

He was at work in 1803 on what would become the most famous of his series of Medical Inquiries and Observations, a volume on Diseases of the Mind. Ever since his appointment to the staff of the Pennsylvania Hospital in 1783, it had been his particular concern go change the conditions under which "mad people" were housed and treated. Still to come, though Rush may already have had reasons for disquiet, was his son John's entry as a patient into the new psychiatric wing that his father had worked to have established. John Rush would remain there for the rest of his father's life and of his own.

Rush had published his first anti-slavery pamphlet in 1773, the first revolutionary to do so, but his words and actions concerning slavery constituted one of the inconsistencies of which Rush was often accused. He, like many other signers, owned a man who even in Rush's affectionate account called him "massaw."3 In 1788 Rush signed a document freeing William Grubber, though freedom was not to occur until six years later, when Rush would have obtained "just compensation for my having paid for the full price of a slave for life." Perhaps his recommendation for women's education seems more inconsistent now than it did when made. It did turn from traditional ornamental skills for women, but the stated goal was to enable women to prepare their sons to be virtuous citizens. It was not a curriculum contemplating women as physicians, chemists, pamphleteers or voters.

Rush himself seemed to ignore another contradiction. He concluded in Diseases of the Mind that failings of the "moral faculty were to be traced to physical causes . . . vain to attack with lectures upon morality." In his lifelong religious zeal, he never refrained from providing those lectures. It would have been in character to send Lewis off with one, and a lecture on the avoidance of "distillations of fermented substances." Still, he considered quite acceptable "a quart of beer with lunch, a pint and a half of madeira after dinner." Perhaps they shared a glass or two.4

1. Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (American Philosophical Society: Princeton University Press, 1951), 1218.

2. David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), 329-30.

3. George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1948), 246.

4. See also the multiple page series, Benjamin Rush, M.D.

Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program