My granddaughter, Vivienne, was reading “Fever 1793” by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s the story of the worst yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia history. About 5,000 people died; that was 10% of the population. Years ago I read J. H. Powell’s “Bring Out Your Dead: the great plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793” (1949). It was a gripping story. Many of the better off fled the City. African Americans led by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones cared for the sick and buried the dead. It was mistakenly believed they were immune. The cause, infected mosquitoes, was unknown. As were medical cures. Several doctors offered their best theories. One of the most active was Benjamin Rush who advocated purges and blood letting. Some thought Rush’s blood letting was excessive and may have actually led to deaths. I mentioned Allen, Jones and Rush to Viv.
I didn’t know much about Rush. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and there’s a State Park and a high school named after him in Northeast Philadelphia. In addition there is a Benjamin Rush elementary school in Bensalem. I visited the park once expecting to find a Rush house but there wasn’t any. I was curious to know more.
Stephen Fried to the rescue. I ordered his 2018 book, “Rush: revolution, madness & the visionary doctor who became a founding father.” Fried felt that founding father Rush had been somewhat ignored considering the attention given to Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin. He used many papers in several libraries, particularly letters that had never been catalogued or read academically. What emerges is a well written, entertaining story of an interesting character.
As a young man Benjamin decided on medicine and was sponsored at the University of Edinburgh medical school. On his return to Philadelphia he was appointed a professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania. Rush also became associated with Pennsylvania Hospital. Like Franklin he was extremely active in the social, political, and medical life of Philadelphia. He was born in a house on Red Lion Road in the Northeast. But he lived in several homes downtown (one on the corner of Third and Walnut). He also had a house outside the city located today in Greenwood cemetery.
At the Pennsylvania Hospital, Rush became an advocate for the mentally ill who were frequently chained in a basement level. He lobbied for a separate building with private cells, more humane treatment. Throughout his life he attempted to understand the reasons for madness and develop and promote treatments.
He was particularly against the use of strong spirits, not wine and beer, but hard liquor which he believed led to madness and other disorders. This interest was reinforced when his son John became mentally ill and was hospitalized (John killed a close friend in a duel). Rush writes about a variety of medical topics including mental illness. He designs a restraining chair.
Rush was active politically during the Revolution which he actively supported. He wrote and encouraged Patrick Henry to publish “Common Sense.” Fried explores Rush’s relationship with his contemporaries. He is very friendly with Franklin. Although he had a slave for some time he became active with Franklin in the Abolition Society and would champion the rights of blacks, writing about abolition. He also took an interest in education which he felt was essential to a true democracy.
Despite his teaching at the medical school and his many students who respected him, he does not get along with several leading doctors — John Morgan and Edward Shippen Jr. During the war, Rush is critical of Washington, and their relationship never recovers. He is however good friends of both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He corresponds extensively with them. Although he disagrees politically with the Federalists, Hamilton and Adams, he likes to engage in discussion.
Abigail and John Adams and the Rush family become personal friends. Rush is married to a young Julia Stockton, the daughter of Richard Stockton, Princeton, NJ, and signer of the Declaration. The Stocktons lived on the outskirts of town at Morven. Julia would sometimes retreat there when Rush was too engaged. Morven is a museum today. They had many children, several died young.
Although Rush signed the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t there for its ratification but was appointed a PA representative later. Although his role in the 1793 yellow fever epidemic was memorable, he contributed much more to life in Philadelphia and the new United States.
Benjamin Rush is buried in Christ Church cemetery near Benjamin Franklin. He attended several churches, was very pious, but like Franklin may have been a Dieist at heart. He liked discussing religion with Jefferson, who edited his own version of the Bible.
I almost feel I will need to reread “Rush” to retain a bit of the detail. It would also be fun to visit the sites associated with Rush. I’ll call it on the trail of Benjamin Rush.