The Paradoxical Doctor Benjamin Rush


Rush died in 1813, after catching a cold; and, consistent to the last, he persuaded his attending doctors to bleed him. In his last years, with the old passions cooled, he contributed several studies of particular diseases—especially infantile cholera and infection of the teeth—to medical literature. They are studies that were respected long after Rush’s theory was discarded. For all of his optimism and faith in progress he belonged to a passing era in medicine. The future lay with experimentation and the steady refinement of diagnostic tools. An age of x rays, stethoscopes, and antiseptics dismantled the all-embracing certainties of eighteenth-century theorizing.

Yet Rush remains an important American figure, the quintessential reformer, passionate in his sense of his own virtue and convinced that simple remedies cure all problems in the moral and political, as well as the natural, worlds. His energy, warmth, good will toward men, and practicality saved him from the worst excesses of his type. And that was fortunate—for his ultimate reputation as well as for the patients whose ailments he battled.