The man known as Doctor Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on December 24, 1745, about 12 miles northeast of Philadelphia. He descended from an officer with the same name who served in Cromwell's army before immigrating to America and settling in Pennsylvania. Benjamin was his grandson.
Benjamin Rush lost his father at six years of age; this left Benjamin his brother in the care of their mother. She wanted Benjamin to have a "classical education," but she did not have the financial means to give him one. She decided to sell her land and move her family into Philadelphia where she began a commercial pursuit. Through her efforts there, she was able to give her son a "liberal education." When he was nine years of age, he began studying with the Rev. Dr. Findlay, the principal of an academy at Nottingham, Maryland. When he finished his preparatory studies, Benjamin entered Princeton College, receiving a degree in 1760 at age sixteen.
Young Benjamin wanted to study law, but Dr. Findlay convinced him to study medicine. Benjamin studied with Doctor Redman of Philadelphia. Then he went to England in 1766 to gain "professional improvement" by "attending the lectures at the best hospitals and medical schools in London for two years." He went to Paris in 1768 to add to his medical knowledge; that autumn he returned to America with the title of "Doctor of Medicine," having received a diploma at Edinburgh.
Doctor Rush began his medical practice in Philadelphia and almost immediately began consulting other practitioners in the city. "His polished manners, superior intellect, kind deportment in the sick room [bedside manner] made him very popular, and he soon had an extensive and lucrative practice." Students "flocked" to Philadelphia after the war from all parts of the United States and even from Europe to attend his lectures. His biographer wrote that he taught, both privately and in classes, about two thousand pupils.
In addition to running a successful medical practice, he immediately became active in the patriot cause of liberty in 1768. In addition to personal contacts, he used his pen as a powerful instrument to move people to action. He was "solicited" to be a delegate to the General Congress in 1775, but he declined. In 1776 some of the Pennsylvanian delegates to the Congress refused to vote for independence and left; Doctor Rush was elected to fill one of those seats and accepted it. He was not a member of Congress when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, but he was present and signed it on August 2, 1776.
Doctor Rush was appointed by Congress in 1777 to the office of physician-general in the military hospitals where he was greatly useful. He did not serve in Congress again after this appointment. In fact, he did not actively participate in public office except as a member of the Convention of Pennsylvania, which adopted the U.S. Constitution. He was appointed to be president of the mint in 1788 and held that position for fourteen years.
Even though Doctor Rush served well as a statesman, he was much more distinguished and better known as a medical practitioner. He was professor of chemistry at the Medical College of Philadelphia in 1769. He was professor of the theory and practice of medicine in 1789 and at the same time held the professorship of the Institutes of Medicine and of Chemical Science in the Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1796 he accepted the professorship of the practice of medicine, making a total of three professorships.
Doctor Rush was well qualified as a medical practitioner, a philanthropist, and a Christian when he was challenged with an epidemic of yellow fever that depopulated Philadelphia in 1793. The usual remedies for disease failed, and the best medical care was not good enough. Many doctors began to fear for their own lives and left the city, but Doctor Rush and some of his pupils and friends stayed to help the sick. He eventually had a severe attack of the fever, and some of his students also got sick.
Benjamin Rush impacted several public institutions. In 1786 he organized the Philadelphia Dispensary, and he was one of the main founders of Dickerson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was an honorary member in many literary and scientific societies in Europe, and he also held numerous offices in benevolent and philosophical institutions in America.
"As a patriot, Doctor Rush was firm and inflexible; as a professional man he was skillful, candid, and honorable; as a thinker and writer, he was profound; as a Christian, zealous and consistent; and in his domestic relations, he was the centre of a circle of love and true affection." He was also an ardent student of the Bible, and his faith was "manifested in many of his scientific productions." His "principles stood firm, and his opinions never wavered."
Doctor Rush died on April 19, 1813, at age sixty-eight. During his final illness "his house was constantly thronged with people inquiring" about him. "When death closed his eyes, every citizen felt that a dear friend had been taken away, and a general gloom overspread the community."
Facts and quotes are from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 99-103.
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