Early Life and Education

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Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) at age 37

by Charles Willson Peale (1783)

Young Benjamin Rush

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

Oil on canvas, 55" by 44½".

Benjamin Rush was many things: a zealous reformer who advocated constantly for social and educational causes, an ardent patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence and served in the medical department of the Continental Army, a teacher whose influence spread across the growing United States through the thousands of medical students and apprentices he taught, a tireless physician who gave so much to relieve the suffering of his patients that his own health was affected. His roles as reformer, patriot, teacher and physician were informed by a firm Christian faith whose expression may have varied (he never quite settled on one church) but whose conviction never did.

Rush's energy, dedication, and prolific pen had made him the most famous physician in America in 1803,1 the year Meriwether Lewis visited him in Philadelphia, where Rush, at the behest of Thomas Jefferson, would advise Lewis on how to keep his men healthy and what questions to ask to determine the health practices of the Indians he would encounter.2

The city Lewis visited was the most important in the young nation, full of famous buildings and renowned institutions, an economic, financial, cultural, intellectual, and political center second to none, until 1800 the capital of the nation and still its chief port. Benjamin Rush, as much as even Benjamin Franklin, was a Philadelphian, and should always be viewed as intimately a part of his city.

Benjamin Rush was born 4 January 1746 (New Style) in the rural community of Byberry, twelve miles north of Philadelphia.3 His great-great grandfather, a captain of horse in Oliver Cromwell's army who had become a Quaker, had settled there in 1683. (Benjamin was baptized an Episcopalian but was mostly raised a Presbyterian.) John, Rush's father, set up shop as a gunsmith in Philadelphia in 1748, a trade John's farmer-father had also practiced. When John Rush died in 1751, his wife Susanna firmly established the family in the city, where she opened a grocery and provision store which, together with proceeds from her husband's estate, provided for her and her children.

The Philadelphia of the 1750s was a growing, tolerant, progressive, somewhat dull city. It had its share of problems. David Freeman Hawke writes,

Hogs ran wild. A constant stench arose from Dock Creek, a stream that twisted through the heart of the city and was flanked by stables and tanyards that used it for an open sewer. Filth accumulated in the streets until heavy rains washed it away. Flies blackened uncovered food, and bedbugs, mosquitoes, and roaches tormented residents through the sweltering summers.4

A young Rush would have been exposed to the sordid aspects of a bustling port city.

But if Philadelphia was not Eden, it nonetheless had many attractions and amenities.5 Streets were gradually being paved and wooden sidewalks were common, as were street lights. The city was known for its craftsmen, who produced furniture and other items for the well-to-do. The port connected the city to the rest of the world, providing much of the wealth of the city through trade and exports from the surrounding fertile agricultural area. The port also made Philadelphia more cosmopolitan than other colonial cities. Developments in science and thought came back with Philadelphians who traveled to Europe to study.

Benjamin Franklin's energy and public-spiritedness set the tone for the city, and greatly improved the quality of life for its citizens. Franklin helped make Philadelphia a center of publishing, and his efforts greatly improved the mail system, connecting the city—and the other colonies—more closely. With Franklin as the guiding spirit, Philadelphia saw many firsts in British North America: the first circulating library (the Library Company, 1731); the first organized fire company (the Union Fire Company, 1736); the first hospital (Pennsylvania Hospital, 1751); the first system of public night watch (1751); the first fire insurance company (the Philadelphia Contributionship, 1752). Franklin also helped organize the first college in the city (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1755.

Philadelphia was a center of science; again we find Franklin's presence. The American Philosophical Society (APS) was started by Franklin (and the botanist John Bartram) in 1743, the first scientific society in North America, and which after 1769 began its real emergence as America's preeminent scientific society, remaining so well into the 19th century. Franklin created much of the scientific reputation of Philadelphia with the publication of his Experiments and Observations in Electricity in 1751, a reputation further cemented internationally by the historically important observation of the transit of Venus in 1769 that was organized by the APS.

Rush grew up in the city—the most urbanized area in the colonies—that Franklin did so much to create, and although very different personalities, they shared similar ideas of active citizenship, constantly striving to improve the self and society. Franklin, too, was to become one of Rush's mentors.

Rush was much more formally educated than the largely self-taught Franklin. At age eight Rush went to a Presbyterian boarding school run by his uncle, Samuel Finley, the first of his father figures and mentors. At the age of thirteen Rush enrolled at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, another Presbyterian institution, run by Samuel Davies, who became another mentor.

Finley's and especially Davies' institutions formed Rush in several ways. Both men were Calvinists, imbued with the spirit of the Great Awakening, the first major American religious revival. It was begun by George Whitefield, who propagated the view that, as David Freeman Hawke writes, "God offered regeneration to all who opened their hearts to Him, regardless of their race or rank in society"; God's grace alone, not wealth or power, put humankind on the true road to happiness. "This spiritual happiness gained . . . carried with it public duties," he wrote; one "must work with god to bring heaven down to earth."6 This is the deep source of Rush's reformist impulse, his patriotism, and even his approach to medicine. Restoration of sovereignty to "a free and virtuous people" would allow them to "advance to knowledge and truth according to God's plan," resulting in a renewal of Christian civilization.7 As a physician, Rush, following his belief that nature was fallen, did not trust nature to cure disease. Only "heroic" medicine based on a system of medicine in which the physician tries to "conquer nature the way Christ conquered death at Calvary" could cure disease.8

After some thought about becoming a lawyer, Rush followed Finley's advice and took up medicine. Dr. John Redman, considered the best physician in Philadelphia, a friend of Finley's and another Presbyterian, in 1761 accepted Rush as an apprentice. Only 15, Rush went quickly to work, mixing drugs (a job of physicians at the time), accompanying Redman on patient visits and keeping the books.

Lifelong habits of long hours, no distractions from work, and intellectual improvement were solidified during Rush's five years with Redman. Rush writes in his autobiography:

During this period I was absent from [Redman's] business but eleven days, and never spent more than three evenings out of his house. . . . It may not be amiss to mention here that before I began the study of medicine, I had an uncommon aversion from seeing such sights as are connected with its practice. But a little time and habit soon wore away all that degree of sensibility which is painful, and enabled me to see and even assist with composure in performing the most severe operations in surgery. The confinement and restraint which now imposed upon me gave me no alternative but business and study, both of which became in a short time agreeable to me. I read in the intervals of my business and at late and early hours, all the books in medicine that were put into my hands by my master, or that I could borrow from other students of medicine in the city.

He was learning his profession—and further developing his close ties to the life of his city.9

Although Rush was committed to Philadelphia (and not prudish), he was contemptuous and weary of sinful city life. The serious young man wrote his friend Ebenezer Hazard,

Vice and profanity openly prevail in our city. Our Sabbaths are boldly profaned by the most open and flagitious enormities. Our Young men in general (who should be the prop of sinking Religion) are whole devoted to pleasure and sensuality and very few are solicitous about the one thing needful.

O my dear Ebenezer, let not the deadly contagion reach us. We wrestle with powerful corruptions and temptations, but let us derive strength from the Rock of Ages.10

Certainly Rush was aware of stench and filth of the city (and learned that "miasma" in the air caused disease). But Rush knew also that Philadelphia was a dynamic place. Later in life, when he had become part of the establishment, Rush could write, "From habit, from necessity, and from local circumstances, all the States view our city as the capital of the new world."11

Dr. William Cullen (1710-1790)

Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh

Cullen portrait: a late 18th-century scholar standing over his books and writings

Library, College of Physicians of Philadelphia

As much as Philadelphia had to offer, its medical school was yet new and so, like a number of his contemporaries, Rush went to Edinburgh—the most prestigious medical school in Europe—to get a medical degree. In Edinburgh Rush received training from such luminaries as the anatomist Alexander Monro; the chemist Joseph Black, the discoverer of carbon dioxide; and William Cullen, who taught theory and practice of medicine. Rush would leave Edinburgh a disciple of Cullen's theories.

In Edinburgh, Rush socialized, with notable success, with members of the Scottish elite. After graduating in 1768, he spent the following year in London and Paris furthering his training and meeting many notables. In London Rush took clinical training with Richard Huck and attended lectures by the anatomist William Hunter. Through Huck, Rush met Sir John Pringle, physician to the royal family. Rush also met Dr. John Fothergill, a Quaker and friend of many Americans. Rush's most enduring friendship was with Dr. John Coakley Lettsom, a man as idealistic and energetic as Rush. Among the notables Rush met were Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and painters Benjamin West and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Another significant acquaintance, first begun in Edinburgh, was with George Whitefield, the great preacher who had so much influenced Finley and Davies.

Franklin, who had helped Rush with introductions for Edinburgh, showed him around London as well or, as Rush puts it, he was "domesticated in [Franklin's] family." One time Franklin took Rush to Court, pointing out the distinguished "public characters" of the nation.12 Planning to go to Paris, Rush was assisted by Franklin again, who wrote other introductions and provided a letter of credit. The money Rush used was repaid from some of the first money he made upon his return to America.13

His European experience gave Rush an intellectual grounding, social polish, and medical knowledge only a few in America could match.

1. Richard Shryock, "The Medical Reputation of Benjamin Rush: Contrasts over Two Centuries," the Fielding H. Garrison Lecture, delivered at the 43rd annual meeting of the American Association of the History of Medicine, April 2, 1970, printed in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 45:6 (1971), 507-552. See 516-519 for Rush's medical reputation.

2. Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush, 2 vols. (Princeton: University Press, 1951). Rush to Thomas Jefferson, 11 June 1803. Hereafter cited as Letters.

3. Except as noted, biographical information comes from David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971) and Nathan G. Goodman, Benjamin Rush, Physician and Citizen, 1746-1813 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1934). A comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Rush was published 1998: Claire G. Fox, Gordon L. Miller, Jacquelyn C. Miller, Benjamin Rush, M.D.: A Bibliographic Guide. Bibliographies and Indexes in American History Number 31, Westport, Connecticut & London, Greenwood.

4. Hawke, 9.

5. The following information on early Philadelphia comes from Russell F. Weigley, ed., Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (New York and London, Norton, 1982), 1-108.

6. Hawke, 13.

7. Donald J. D'Elia, "Jefferson, Rush, and the Limits of Philosophical Friendship," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 117, No. 5 (Oct. 25, 1973), 336.

8. Ibid.

9. George W. Corner, ed. The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His "Travels Through Life" Together with his "Commonplace Book" for 1789-1813, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1948 (Vol. 25 of the Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society), 38.

10. Rush to Ebenezer Hazard, Letters, 2 August 1764.

11. Rush to Noah Webster, Letters, 13 February 1788.

12. Autobiography 55.

13. Goodman, 19.

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