Although details are lacking, it is likely that at their first meeting Rush took good measure of Lewis, understood his military and frontier training, and could have learned of Lewis's knowledge of medicinal herbs, gained under his mother's tutelage.1 Rush wrote Jefferson to say that "Mr. Lewis appears admirably qualified" for the expedition.2 The advice Rush had given Lewis often sounds rather odd or useless by modern standards, and wasn't followed to the letter by the captains, but it fulfilled Jefferson's request. Although there is no reference in Rush's collected letters to the return of Lewis and the expedition, or of Rush and Lewis meeting again, undoubtedly Rush's millennial faith in America's destiny would have been renewed by the heroic success of the Corps of Discovery.
After 1803, Rush had ten years of life left. He spent those years in Philadelphia, still arguably the most important city in America, even as economic power was shifting to New York City and political power to the new federal capital, Washington. Although less politically active than in the 1770s and '80s, Rush continued as he had throughout his life, advocating causes, and especially practicing, writing about, and teaching medicine. He always gave unstinting care to his patients. Few forgot him as a professor of medicine, and his influence was wide. An unpublished set of lecture notes taken by William Darlington attests to Rush's effectiveness as a teacher. While discussing "autumnal fever," Rush used the case of
A young lady [who] was once in this city affected with autumnal fever, and in her convalescence her moral faculty was much impaired—so that she would tell great falsehoods—she was cured by exercise, cool air, &c. of her fibbing propensity—. This we should remember for the encouragement of relatives.3The passage has an unmistakable charm and is as close as Rush ever got to the humorous.
Benjamin Rush died in 1813 at the age of 67. He was the type of man who attracted adjectives: hard-working, well-mannered, honest, public-spirited, contentious, self-righteous, passionate, studious, unaffected, indiscreet, unbalanced, intelligent, impatient, compassionate, stubborn, articulate, devout, energetic. He seems above all a man who cared about other human beings and gave of himself so that earth would be a better place. As a physician, politician, and writer he was a man of his times who nevertheless worked for a better future. Despite his failings, his was a life of noble effort.
1. Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 90.
2. Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush. 2 vols. (Princeton: University Press, 1951), Rush to Thomas Jefferson, 11 June 1803.
3. William Darlington, Notes Taken from the Lectures of Benjamin Rush, M.D. on the Theory & Practice of Physic, v. 3, 1803-4, 193. College of Physicians of Philadelphia manuscript number 10a/105. Autumnal fever was literally an affliction of autumn. Rush believed one of the symptoms of a type of autumnal fever was an impairment of the moral sense.
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