Benjamin Rush – Founding Father, First Doctor

In my ongoing attempts to showcase great men who either are unknown or underrated I present Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was born this week (Dec. 24) in 1745.  Dr. Rush is a “two-fer” — not only underrated as one of America’s Founding Fathers, but also underrated as one of America’s greatest doctors.  This man helped give America life, while saving the lives of thousands.

After studying medicine in his native Philadelphia, and then in Europe under the world’s foremost physicians, Rush returned to Philadelphia in 1769, where he quickly became America’s most famous physician and medical teacher.  Simultaneously, he immersed himself in America’s struggle for independence.  A prolific writer, he alternated between publishing pamphlets on medical topics such as the healthful effects of temperance — Rush was among the first to recognize that alcoholism was a disease — and publishing political tracts on Britain’s violations of colonial rights.  A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush subsequently tended to the Americans wounded on the battlefields that resulted from that declaration, even treating Washington’s army at Valley Forge.

After the war, Rush continued his two-track political and medical career. While a member of the Pennsylvania state convention that ratified the Constitution in 1787, he not only helped found a college to train physicians but also a society to emancipate America’s slaves.  In addition, Rush wrote the first textbook on mental illness and psychiatry, earning him the title “Father of American Psychiatry.”  He was also among the first to call for widespread smallpox inoculations.

He was also the first doctor to recognize that the dreaded “Yellow Fever” disease, which killed thousands of Americans annually, was not contagious, but came from an indigenous source (much later identified as mosquito bites).  Rush concluded this while treating a virulent Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793, and papers he published in the epidemic’s wake earned him international fame.

Rush had his detractors, and many of his medical cures were controversial — he believed in “bleeding” patients, for example — yet he unquestionably saved many thousands of lives, while greatly advancing the science of medicine.

Ironically, however, Rush’s most famous contribution to American history may be his minor role in re-kindling the friendship between two Americans far more famous than he — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  After years of angry silence between the two men — a silence brought about by political differences long past — Rush suggested to Adams that he should break the silence by writing Jefferson a letter.  Adams did, and he and Jefferson became friends again — even dying together on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a great, if unsung, American, died on the far less famous day of April 19, 1813.