The Paradoxical Doctor Benjamin Rush

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Such was Rush’s medical universe. In 1768 he cleared the last hurdle to his M.D. , a “dissertation,” through an exercise that says much about him and his time. He chose as his subject the process of digestion and posed the question of whether or not it was caused by an acid-fed “fermentation” in the stomach. His research method was Spartan. He ate three meals—one of beef, one of veal, and one of poultry. Several hours after each he took an emetic, vomited into a basin, and tested his stomach’s contents for acidity. When the results proved positive, he considered himself to have proven that the answer to his query was Yes. After writing up his results in the required Latin, Rush never delved into the problem again. Nor did his examiners for the degree, evidently, see fit to ask whether he had tested and ruled out other hypotheses. It would be years before the role of enzymes in the entire digestive process was unveiled.

There was no lack of interest on Rush’s part in medical inquiry, but experimentation was not his forte. And the world beyond the sickroom made major claims on his attention. As a handsome, widely read, voluble, and intelligent young colonial Rush found his way quickly and easily into the society of Edinburgh and London. His social success was also aided by introductions from Benjamin Franklin. As agent for Pennsylvania in London, Franklin enjoyed showing off bright American visitors as further high-quality products of his native land. Rush dined with such lions as Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Goldsmith and was pleased but not swept off his feet. (Johnson he found “offensive in his manners” and Goldsmith lacking in the “usual marks of great and original genius.”)

In fact, Rush’s three years in Scotland and England, topped off by a visit to Paris, confirmed him as a republican and a patriot. In Edinburgh he had listened with enthusiasm to radical young friends who talked against monarchy, and by the time he got to visit the House of Commons, he had decided that it was a “cursed haunt of venality” where “the infernal scheme for enslaving America was first broached.” Rush presumably had reference to the Stamp Act and the Townshend taxes, both of which were convulsing the colonies with resistance during his early twenties. Writing home to the Pennsylvania Journal , he urged his countrymen to continue their boycott of British manufactures.

The fascinations of politics had already bitten him when he returned to Philadelphia in 1769, and he launched himself into so many activities that it was hard to tell whether he hoped to make his lasting reputation as a physician or a pamphleteer. His activities on the eve of the Revolution show a strange mixture of self-promotion, self-destructive arrogance, idealism, and practicality, fuelled by immense energies. Rush was one of those extraordinary individuals whose tired bodies are renewed by a change in activity. He would rise early and spend a day seeing patients in his “shop” and then making house calls, but his evenings found him ready for study. “I seldom went to bed before 12 o’clock,” he recalled, “and many many times have I heard the watchmen cry 3 o’clock before I have put out my candle.” If he tired of reading, he would write for a while, and when writing palled, he went back to reading. He found, on the whole, that the “greater exertion” of composition chased away sleepiness, though it was also helpful to poke up the fire in winter or take a breath of fresh air on his balcony in summer. His writings (which fill fortyfive volumes in the Pennsylvania Historical Society’s library today) consisted of innumerable letters, drafts of lectures in medicine, and essays on various subjects, all intended to improve the manners and morals of his peers. In 1772 he published three Sermons to Gentlemen upon Temperance and Exercise —anonymously, since he sought “nothing from his countrymen but the pleasure of doing them good.” The next year saw him tackling a touchier subject than overeating, in An Address … upon Slave-keeping . Sixty years before William Lloyd Garrison unequivocally blasted Negro bondage in the United States, Rush—in a city whose leading citizens still included many slaveholders—supported abolition and warned: “Remember that national crimes require national punishments.” (Yet he himself, guiltily but undeniably, kept one slave until 1794.) Late in 1773, drawn ever deeper into anti-British agitation, he warned that the plan of the royal ministers to give the East India Company a monopoly of the tea trade with the colonies was part of “the machinations of the enemies of our country to enslave us.” By the time the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, Rush’s views were already well known, and he spoke out for independence from the moment actual fighting began. Early in 1775 he met and instantly liked a down-at-the-heels English newcomer to Philadelphia, Thomas Paine. Discovering that they shared many of the same beliefs, Rush encouraged Paine to write Common Sense . It was a happy culmination for Rush when he himself was elected to the Continental Congress in July of 1776, in time to sign the final, formally engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence.