Rush and the APS

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While the APS dates its founding to 1743, it wasn't until 1769 that a permanent society emerged from the union of two societies: the American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge and a revived APS.1 The united society was (and is) officially called the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge. "Useful Knowledge" was seen as seeking to understand how the world was organized and functioned, and putting that knowledge to use so that the lives of citizens could be improved. The political situation had provided an impulse to better define the goals of the Society. The Stamp Act and Townshend Acts caused Americans to think about how the colonies could be made less economically dependent upon England. Improvement in agriculture and manufacturing as well as developing trade and commerce now more urgently needed discussing.2 Native ground would be the focus, from examining mineral deposits to surveying plants to improving transportation to understanding Native Americans. When Lewis and Clark went up the Missouri in 1804, their mission—equally scientific, economic, ethnographic, geographical, and political—harmonized with the stated purpose of the APS.

While in Europe in 1768, Rush had been elected a member of the American Society, so thus became a member of the united society. On his return he immediately began attending meetings, becoming an active member. He served on various committees, such as the standing Committee on Natural History and Chemistry and the ad hoc committee to design the seal. (With a few modifications, the seal is still used today.) He served as curator (1770-72), secretary (1773-76), vice-president (1797-1800), and councilor (1786-1794, 1806-1813). "Between 1770 and 1797 he delivered fifteen papers and orations before the Society," many published in the Society's Transactions.3

Some presentations find echoes in the scientific concerns of the Lewis and Clark expedition: a piece on the medicinal qualities of a plant (thorn apple), the effects of cold on the body, the (supposed) mineral springs of Philadelphia. One of Rush's earliest contributions was an oration on medicine among the Indians, given in 1774. It is no great contribution to medicine or ethnography. Rush had no direct knowledge of Native Americans, instead relying on second hand sources and reports from Edward Hand, a military surgeon who studied Indian life while stationed at Fort Pitt. What Rush does do is present Native Americans not as noble savages but as a people (he does not distinguish among tribes) with a specific way of life. Indian medicine is seen as inferior to western, but Rush points out how disease and corrupting vices have harmed Native Americans—problems western medicine should now address.

Ultimately, the essay is a muddle, filled with material irrelevant to the title. But Rush knew his audience and the pervading American hope for the future. He concluded:

It reflects equal honor upon our society and the honourable assembly of our province, to acknowledge, that we have always found the latter willing to encourage their patronage, and reward their liberality, all our schemes for promoting useful knowledge. What may we not expect from this harmony between sciences and government! Methinks I can see canals cut—rivers once impassable rendered navigable—bridges erected—and roads improved, to facilitate the exportation of grain.—I see the banks of our rivers vieing in fruitfulness with the banks of the rivers of Egypt.—I behold our farmers, nobles—our merchant princes.—But I forbear—Imagination cannot swell with the subject.

I beg leave to conclude, by deriving an argument from our connection with the legislature, to remind my auditors of the duty they owe to the society. Patriotism and literature are here connected together; and a man cannot neglect the one, without being destitute of the other. Nature and our ancestors have completed their work among us; and have left us nothing to do, but enlarge and perpetuate our own happiness.4

It is with such hopes that Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark.


1. The original APS founded by Franklin in 1743 became dormant in 1746. A similar organization formed in about 1750, calling itself the Young Junto, emulating Franklin's 1727 group of learned tradesmen called the Junto. In 1766 the Young Junto changed its name to the American Society for Promoting and Propagating Useful Knowledge, meeting in Philadelphia. The American Society was developing into a growing concern when some former members of the original APS who had not been elected to the American Society revived that organization. Having two scientific societies in a city the size of Philadelphia was not a viable proposition, so the two societies merged in 1769. In addition, in 1766 the Philadelphia Medical Society was founded, which merged with the American Society in 1768. Rush was elected to both the Medical Society and the American Society in 1768, becoming an APS member upon the merger of the societies. For a brief history of the societies, see the two volumes of biographical portraits of members by Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Patriot Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. One, 1743-1768 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997), and Vol. Two, 1768 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1990).

2. Bell, Patriot Improvers, Vol. One, 339.

3. Lyman H. Butterfield, "Benjamin Rush as a Promoter of Useful Knowledge," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 92, no. 1, March 1948, 28. See appendix one for a full list of Rush's orations and publications.

4. Quoted in Bell, Patriot Improvers, Vol. One, 456. There is, however, no record in the APS manuscript minutes (Archives I, #4 and #5) of Rush attending a meeting of the APS after 1801. In the one clear reference as to why he ceased attending meetings, Rush says that he did so to "avoid insult" from "most of my medical brethren." One can surmise that the animosity from the fierce debates about yellow fever had, at least to Rush, not fully abated.

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