Today, a psychiatrist signs the Declaration of
Independence. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Benjamin Rush was a 30-year-old doctor
when he helped declare us free of England. Freedom
and human well-being were causes that shaped his
life. He believed in educating women. He fought
slavery and the death penalty. He worked for prison
reform. He tried to form a Cabinet Department of
Peace to balance the War Department.
As a doctor, Rush may've overused blood-letting and
purging. Still, he was a shrewd observer. His
untiring courage in caring for the sick almost led
to his own death by yellow fever. He finally did
die of typhus.
In 1812 he published a book on diseases of the
mind. For that, we call Rush the Father of American
Psychiatry. But he'd started framing his ideas
about the mind long before.
In 1786 he gave an oration before the American
Philosophical Society. He dedicated it to the
Society's president, Ben Franklin. It was all about
the physical causes of our moral state -- the sort
of thing that gives modern readers fits.
Rush began by listing possible physical influences
on our sense of morality. He wondered about effects
of body shape, heredity, disease, climate, diet,
He guessed what influences might harm morality --
like idleness and alcohol. He gave a monastic list
of things that might sharpen our moral sense:
solitude, music, work, and cleanliness. Then he
added pain. But then, maybe suffering does take
place on the same mental battleground where good
wars with evil.
As we read, we begin to see Rush's scientific
open-mindedness. What he had was a fine eye for
possibilities. He asked more questions than he
answered. He understood that we grow wise in
framing our ignorance, not in asserting knowledge.
When Rush taught medicine, he talked about the
senses. How do we taste with the tongue, smell with
the nose? How does the heart see God? He stirred an
eerie brew of cool rational observation, strict
fundamentalist conviction, and the most liberal
causes of human freedom. None of that fits today's
While Rush theorized about the moral faculty, he
also put his own life on the line among the sick.
If he was assertive, he was equally open-minded. He
was, I suppose, America in embryo.
In the end, Rush acted out a belief in
individuality. He did that so well by keeping
questions ahead of answers -- by honoring your view
while he laid claim to his own.
And in that he was a fitting signer of the
Declaration of Independence. He understood what
freedom is made of.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Rush, B., Two Essays on the Mind (intro.
by E.T. Carlson). New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1972.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
article on Rush. These two sources give conflicting
birth dates for Rush -- 1746 and 1745. The reason,
as explained in the reference below, is that we
were operating under two slightly different
calendars. He was actually born on Christmas Eve,
1745. But by today's calendar, he was born on Jan.
Rush, B., Benjamin Rush's Lectures on the
Mind (E.T. Carlson, J.L. Wollock, and P.S.
Noel, eds.). Philadelphia: American Philosophical
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John
H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
University Libraries, University of
Houston, Houston, TX 77204-2091.
Episode | Search Episodes |