Dr. Benjamin Rush - The Founder of American Psychiatry

Dr. Benjamin Rush - The Founder of American Psychiatry

I had a lot of difficulty with this article because Dr. Benjamin Rush participated in so many scientific fields over a long life that it is almost impossible to cover chronoligically.  Therefore, I decided to review a brief outline of his Revolutionary accomplishments in the first two sections and go with general topics for the rest of the article.

Rush had an amazing career that helped establish the foundation of modern american medicine.

Dr. Benjamin Rush

By the outbreak of the American Revolution, Dr. Benjamin Rush had already made a name for himself as a physician, essayist and Professor of Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia.

Rush was elected to the Continental Congress where he voted for separation from England and signed the Declaration of Independence.

Benjamin was soon after called upon to act as Surgeon-General for the Middle Department of the Continental Army.  He ran into disagreements with the Director General of Hospitals William Shippen and resigned his position the following year.


After the war, Rush founded Dickinson College.  Additionally, he began working for Pennsylvania Hospital.

Dr. Rush attended the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention where he supported the United States Constitution.

Rush would be appointed Treasurer of the US Mint by John Adams and remain in that position until the Madison Presidency.

Benjamin was also the person who convinced Adams and Thomas Jefferson to begin corresponding again after years of silence.


Benjamin Rush was a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.  He had long argued that the color of a person’s skin did not make them inferior.  Any lack of intelligence, he argued, was due to limited education and the evil of slavery itself.

At the forefront of many new scientific theories, Rush often made claims that turned out to be (offensively) false.  He believed that black people’s skin was from a disease and could be cured, making them white.  

We know now that this is not true and sounds extremely racist.  Please keep in mind, that Rush was an abolitionist leader before abolition was a popular movement.  He was doing his best to make sense of the world he lived in.

Heroic Medicine

Despite being the most respected doctor in the young nation, Benjamin Rush made other mistakes in his quest for scientific truth.

For example, Rush continued the practice of blood-letting long after most other physicians realized it did more harm than good.  Known as heroic medicine, these treatments also included vomiting and sweating.


Rush was one of the first Americans to protest capital punishment.  He also thought public humiliation was counterproductive.

He believed that long term prison sentences were the best punishment.  Benjamin helped establish the Walnut Street Prison in Philadelphia, the nation’s first modern penitentiary.


Dr. Benjamin Rush is considered the Founder of American Psychiatry.  

He was the first person to discuss mental illness as a disease.  Rush realized there were different levels and forms of mental illness and studied different methods of treatment.

Additionally, Rush was the first to view alcoholism as a disease.  At the time, being an alcoholic was viewed as a sin.  Rush reasoned that the drink had control over the person and not the other way around.   His cure was to wean a patient of alcohol by using weaker and weaker drinks instead of cutting them off cold turkey.


Benjamin Rush was an early revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence.  However, his most import contributions to the Founding of America were his actions against slavery, for prison reform, and treating mental illness.

While there are many great books on Benjamin Rush, I'm recommending 'Patriot and Physician' because it goes deeper into his relationships with other major Founding Fathers and elaborates how influential he was to the other Founders of America.  Clink the link below to purchase through our affiliate Amazon.

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