The Paradoxical Doctor Benjamin Rush


The occupations of his parents put Rush squarely in the colonial middle class. He was low enough on the social scale to need to make his own fortune and high enough to afford schooling that would help him do it. In 1754 he was sent off to a boarding school, Nottingham Academy, about fifty miles south of Philadelphia. It was run by the Reverend Samuel Finley, who became one of the first great influences on Rush’s life. Finley, a Presbyterian minister, was ordained during the Great Awakening, the wave of religious enthusiasm that swept the colonies in the 174o’s. He fell in step with a faction in the church known as the New Lights, who hoped to warm the chilly formality of Calvinist doctrine with a dose of emotional enthusiasm. The message of the Awakening, in contrast to the Calvinist belief in predestination, was that salvation was available to the willing and hardworking. God loved the world enough to redeem it. He needed men and women who would wrestle tirelessly with its imperfections to act as His agents.


Finley infused his handful of boys with this philosophy through a program of hard work and frequent prayer. Benjamin spent five years there, emerging with a fundamental grounding in arithmetic, geography, Greek, and Latin and with a determination to lead a purposeful life. In 1759, not yet fourteen years old but so well prepared that he graduated in a year, he went on to the College of New Jersey, later to be better known as Princeton. It was a new school, created in the aftermath of the Great Awakening to train young, pious colonials for the ministry and other professions. The first lesson it impressed on its fifty-odd students in 1759 was that they must be diligent. The schedule began with prayers at 5:30 A.M. and ran through almost continuous periods of study and instruction until a 9 P.M. bedtime. Samuel Davies, the president, was, like Finley, a New Light Presbyterian, deeply admired by Rush. Davies was convinced, however, that worldly learning need not conflict with the word of God, and he not only added books on mathematics and Newtonian physics to the twelve-hundredvolume library but emphasized scientific and literary studies in the curriculum. He also filled the boys with his patriotic antislavery ideals, and especially with his conception that the chief glory of religion was to kindle a spirit of public service. “Bravely live and die,” he told Rush’s graduating class in 1760, “serving your generation —your own generation.”

It was not any wonder that Rush, baccalaureate degree in hand and contemplating a career, gave first choice to the ministry. “Every pursuit of life must dwindle into nought when Divinity appears,” he wrote to a friend. But with an uncharacteristic humility he decided that he had an “incapacity” for what he called “the Sacred Desk.” For a time he likewise considered a legal career. Colonial lawyers were a busy and ambitious group, already becoming prominent in the legislative assemblies. But in a visit to his old master, Finley, his mind was changed. Finley warned of “temptations and dangers” that beset the path of an attorney and apparently commended medicine as a calling of greater usefulness. He urged Rush to take a day of fasting and prayer to think it over, but the young man was swayed without such meditation. He went back to Davies and asked for a letter of recommendation to Dr. John Redman, likewise an alumnus of Nottingham and “Nassau Hall,” as Princeton was sometimes known. Five months after his graduation Rush moved into Redman’s house to begin an apprenticeship that lasted five and a half years, with only eleven days of absence.

Redman was one of the few American physicians formally trained in his art. He had studied at Edinburgh and Leyden, both outstanding centers of medical education. But most colonial practitioners learned by working at the master’s elbow as he performed his tasks, a system that neatly suited the needs of a simple society. Benjamin (still a teen-ager) mixed prescriptions, held the basin or the lamp while Redman treated his patients, entered notes in the record books, and kept accounts. Apparently he was able to overcome what he called an “aversion” to the grislier sights of medical practice, and he was soon reconciled to his new career. “To spend and be spent for the Good of Mankind is what I chiefly aim at,” he told a former classmate, and medicine could fulfill that aim. He did not even mind the demands of his training, as he noted somewhat primly in the same letter, “for the town is a snare to betray unwary youths.”

When he was not actually at work in what was prosaically called Redman’s “shop,” Rush read through his master’s library and grounded himself in theory. What distinguished the doctor from the amateur healer in the lyßo’s was simply that the doctor attempted a formal explanation of what he was doing by reference to principles of biology and chemistry. The herb doctor, the unlicensed quack, or the do-it-yourself sea captain or plantation master simply prescribed “empiric” remedies, based on experience, hearsay, or almanacs, and hoped for the best. Skin infections got poultices of fat, honey, mustard, cobwebs, and animal dung. There were decoctions of vegetable and berry juices for stomach disorders. When all else failed, charms and amulets might be tried.