Benjamin Rush, known for his political activities during the American Revolution and as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also a physician, humanitarian, and professor at the College of Philadelphia, which later became the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1760, at the age of 14, Rush graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). A year later, Rush began his medical education with some of the most prominent doctors in Philadelphia. He also attended the lectures of John Morgan, Penn’s medical department founder and first professor.
Rush continued his education at the University of Edinburgh and then moved to London for additional training, where he met Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin helped finance Rush’s trip in 1769 to France to further his education through contacts with French physicians, scholars, and scientists.
When Rush returned to Philadelphia later that year, he opened his medical practice and was appointed to Penn as a chemistry professor in the medical department, making him the first professor of chemistry in the United States. Rush also taught medical theory and practice.
Rush served as surgeon general of the Middle Department of the Continental Army in 1777, but after less than one year on the job, he resigned, citing his dissatisfaction with the disorganization and corruption at army hospitals.
He then turned his attention back to teaching and medicine. As a surgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital from 1784 until his death in 1813, he was responsible for patients in the psychiatric ward. Rush pushed for changes to humanize psychiatric treatment. He became known as the “father of American psychiatry” for his book, “Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind,” which was the first American text on the subject.
For nearly 50 years, Rush wrote prolifically about medical procedures and practices, becoming the first American physician to be widely known in the United States and around the world. Rush was renowned for challenging a branch of medicine that deals with the classification of diseases, which resulted in diagnoses and treatments that were more comprehensible and manageable.
Outside of medicine, Rush was passionate about social reforms. He helped free many enslaved blacks through his leadership and participation in the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Rush’s interest in higher education led him to become a founder of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., in 1783, and Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall) in 1787.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives online.