Rush, Benjamin (1745-1813)
An account of the bilious remitting yellow fever, as it appeared in the city of Philadelphia, in the year 1793. Philadelphia: printed by Thomas Dobson, 1794.
Medical inquiries and observations, upon the diseases of the mind. Philadelphia: Kimber & Richardson, 1812.
A native of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush went to medical school in Edinburgh, recognizing the value of a European medical education in the success of American physicians of his day (Duffy 63). He taught chemistry and medicine at the College of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, was a physician at the Pennsylvania Hospital, and later in life, became the Treasurer of the United States Mint. Also, Rush took an active interest in public policy and humanitarian reform issues, such as slavery, alcoholism, and the death penalty. He was in the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He founded the Philadelphia Dispensary and promoted the public school system and female education. Medical historian John Duffy explains that “The combination of his political, philanthropic, and medical activities soon gained Rush a reputation as America’s outstanding physician” (64).
When the yellow fever epidemic of Philadelphia broke out in 1793, Rush was already known for his clinical observations of diseases such as cholera, dengue, and thermal fever. Instead of fleeing the city like many other doctors, Rush remained, treating as many as 100-150 patients daily. His observations about the fever’s course, causes, and treatment are noted in his epidemiology classic, An account of the bilious remitting yellow fever, of which the Reynolds-Finley Library has a first edition copy. Here, he advocates a treatment of abundant bloodletting, cooling of the body, and doses of calomel (a form of mercury) and jalap (Garrison 379-380). To the dismay of many in the community, Rush also proposes that the epidemic was brought on by city sanitation problems instead of being imported (Not. Med. Books 147). Despite professional opposition to his treatments and ideas of causation, Rush’s theories prevailed, and because of his own popularity, were adopted for years to come, especially in the American West and South. The negative result was that these heroic therapies (i.e., excessive purging, bloodletting and mercury) made their way into American medical practice (Duffy 65). On the other hand, Rush’s ideas sparked the movement towards public health and hygiene in the 1800s (Duffy 68).
The Reynolds-Finley Library also has a first edition copy of Benjamin Rush’s Medical inquiries and observations, upon the diseases of the mind, the first American psychiatric writing. Knowledge for this work was acquired while he was in charge of the insane at Pennsylvania Hospital and by his unorthodox teaching of psychiatry in his physiology lectures. Rush recognized that behavior and emotions can be disturbed just like the intellect, a great contribution to the field of psychiatry (Dict. Sci. Bio., Vol. 11-12, 617).
Cambridge Illus. Hist. Med., p. 124; Dict. Sci. Bio., Vol. 11-12, pp. 616-617; Duffy, From Humors to Med. Sci.…pp. 63-68; Garrison, Hist. of Med., 4th Edition, pp. 379-380; Oxford Comp. to Med., Vol. II, p. 1284; Not. Med. Books, p. 147; Reynolds Historical Library, Rare books and coll…, 3643 & 3649.
Image: Benjamin Rush, Print Collection, Reynolds-Finley Historical Library.