Benjamin Rush was born on January 4, 1746, in Byberry, Pennsylvania, and was raised by his mother in Philadelphia. He was an excellent student and graduated with an A.B. from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at age 14. He then studied medicine with a practicing physician in Philadelphia, but in 1766 left for Scotland, then the medical capital of the world. Rush remained there two years and was awarded a M.D. degree.
Rush traveled to London and later Paris, and found the opportunity to meet such prominent personalities as Franklin, Diderot and Samuel Johnson.
In 1769, Rush received an appointment to the faculty of the College of Philadelphia and became America's first professor of chemistry. He built a highly successful medical practice, but became involved in other endeavors, most notably in founding an anti-slavery organization.
Rush also became politically active, working with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. It was Rush who urged Thomas Paine to write a justification for American independence and he who suggested the title "Common Sense." In 1776, he attended the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.
During the War for Independence, Rush served as the surgeon general of the Continental Army; he complained unsuccessfully about army hospital conditions to his superior, Dr. William Shippen. In December, 1777, he later took his concerns to George Washington, who passed the matter on to Congress. After investigating the matter, Congress found in favor of Shippen and Rush resigned.
He harbored a grudge against Washington for his lack of support, and wrote an anonymous letter to Patrick Henry, suggesting that the Southern branch of the Continental Army should be placed under the command of a Southerner. Although he clearly told Henry to burn the letter, lest somebody figure out who wrote it, Henry instead passed it along to Washington who recognized Rush as the author. Rush retreated to private medical practice in Philadelphia and became a participant in the nebulous Conway Cabal. He would later express his regret and become an ardent supporter of Washington in the 1790s.
Rush attended the Pennsylvania state convention in 1789 and worked on behalf of the ratification of the new constitution.
Returning to the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania), Rush combined teaching with a new cause, providing assistance to the poor. He encountered professional criticism from his colleagues for the continued use of bloodletting and mercury purging, especially during the severe yellow fever outbreak of 1793.
Benjamin Rush was particularly concerned with the development of public education in the new republic. What he wrote in 1798 regarding the role of education in the "melting pot" of America foreshadowed arguments that would be made a century and more in the future:
I conceive the education of our youth in this country to be peculiarly necessary in Pennsylvania, while our citizens are composed of the natives of so many different kingdoms in Europe. Our schools of learning, by producing one general, and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government.
Rush also became a champion of the mentally ill and is regarded by many as the "Father of American Psychiatry." He was an ardent supporter of many progressive causes, including the anti-slavery movement, opposition to capital punishment, support for women's education and free public schools, and established a free medical dispensary for the poor in Philadelphia.
Benjamin Rush died at his home on April 19, 1813, in Philadelpha, aged 67 and was buried at Christ's Church in that city.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Benjamin Rush.
Regarding Slavery in America
I need say hardly anything in favor of the Intellects of the Negroes, or of their capacities for virtue and happiness, although these have been supposed by some to be inferior to those of the inhabitants of Europe. The accounts which travelers give of their ingenuity, humanity and strong attachments to their parents, relations, friends and country, show us that they are equal to the Europeans.… All the vices which are charged upon the Negroes in the southern colonies, and the West Indies, such as Idleness, Treachery, Theft and the like, are the genuine offspring of slavery, and serve as an argument to prove, that they were not intended, by Providence, for it.
On Slavekeeping, 1773
Regarding Public Education
Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights.
Education Agreeable to a Republican Form of Government