This Day in History: Benjamin Rush, the only medical doctor to sign the Declaration
On this day in 1746, Benjamin Rush is born. He’s another of those Founders that most modern Americans don’t know too much about . . . but perhaps we should.
Rush was the only medical doctor to sign the Declaration of Independence. Soon after the Declaration was signed, he left the relative comfort of Philadelphia and departed for the field of battle. His mission? Help establish a field hospital and tend to the wounded.
You have to wonder if he really knew what he was getting himself into?
Rush was with George Washington’s army in the days before and after its famous crossing of the Delaware and its victories at Trenton and Princeton. The experience was difficult, to say the least. He’d never experienced war!
Many of our ancestors presumably felt the same way.
“It was now for the first time war appeared to me in its awful plenitude of horrors,” he later reported. “I want words to describe the anguish of my soul, excited by the cries and groans and convulsions of the men who lay by my side.”
He treated many, including General Mercer. (See yesterday’s post.) At first, Rush thought that he might be able to save Mercer. Unfortunately, one of Mercer’s bayonet wounds became infected and he passed away.
A few months later, Rush was commissioned as surgeon general for the army. His time there was bumpy, and he ended up resigning because he disagreed with the manner in which the medical facilities were being run. (He also made the mistake of grumbling about some of Washington’s decisions!) He returned to private medical practice, where he was known and loved for his treatment of the poor and mentally unstable.
Following the war, Rush was a member of the Pennsylvania convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution, and he advocated for its ratification. He wrote extensively on political and other issues, including appeals to end the practice of slavery and to broaden the availability of education. He also remained an influential figure in the field of medicine.
Some of Rush’s practices—especially his belief in blood-letting—were criticized both during and after his lifetime. However, he made other valuable contributions, especially when it came to helping the mentally ill. Some have dubbed him the “father of American psychiatry.”
Toward the end of his life, Rush made one last important contribution: He helped Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to reconcile. The two men had been at odds ever since the contentious presidential election of 1800. Thanks to Rush, the two were finally able to resume their friendship after more than a decade of silence.
The resumed friendship turned out to be a huge blessing.
Jefferson and Adams began an extensive correspondence that sheds much light on our country’s early years. Historian Joseph Ellis has called that 14-year correspondence the “intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen in all of American history.”
The editor of Rush’s writings summarizes the influence of this worthy Patriot:
“[F]ew memorials echoed his name in this great land. Yet few were as fiery as he, or more influential, in the vehemence of protest that brought this country into being; and few held the standards of its early learning and culture as high as he held them.”
Another American hero who gave his all in the cause of liberty, education, and knowledge. Awesome.
Alyn Brodsky, Benjamin Rush: Patriot and Physician (2004)
David McCullough, 1776 (2005)
Robert L. North, MD, Benjamin Rush, MD: assassin or beloved healer? (Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center); January 2000)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998 edition)
The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush (Dagobert D. Runes ed.) (reprint available HERE)