CHAPTER XXXVII. BENJAMIN RUSH.
It is not often that a man, however gifted, is capable of rising to eminence in two distinct branches of public life, especially in two so widely separated from each other as medicine and politics. The subject of this sketch was one of the few who have achieved such distinction.
Benjamin Rush was born on Poquestion Creek, near Philadelphia, on the 24th of December, 1745. He was carefully educated at the best common schools of his native county, and then entered Princeton College, where he graduated in 1760, at the age of fifteen. He decided, upon leaving Princeton, to adopt medicine as his vocation, and began his studies in Philadelphia. He gave nine years to preparing himself for his profession, and after completing his course in Philadelphia, sailed for Europe, where he continued his studies in Edinburgh, London, and Paris. He returned home in 1769, and began the practice of medicine in Philadelphia, and was at once elected Professor of Chemistry in the medical college of that city. He was successful in rapidly acquiring a large and lucrative practice, and experienced very few of the difficulties and trials which lie in the way of a young physician.
In 1770 he began his career as an author, and for many years his writings were numerous. He devoted himself chiefly to medical subjects, but history, philosophy, and politics, and even romance, frequently claimed his attention. He adopted the patriot cause at the outset of his career, and with his pen and voice constantly advocated resistance to the injustice of Great Britain. This drew upon him the attention of his fellow-citizens, and he was chosen to a seat in the Provincial Conference of Pennsylvania. In that body he introduced a resolution setting forth the necessity of a declaration of independence of the mother country. His resolution was referred to a committee, of which he was made the chairman, and this committee having reported affirmatively, the resolution was unanimously adopted by the Conference, and was communicated to the Continental Congress, then in session in Philadelphia, about the last of June, 1776. When it became evident that the Congress would declare the independence of the colonies, five members of the Pennsylvania delegation withdrew from that body. Their places were at once supplied by Rush and four others, and when the Declaration was finally adopted Benjamin Rush affixed his signature to it as a delegate from Pennsylvania.
In 1776 Dr. Rush was married to Miss Julia Stockton, daughter of Richard Stockton, of New Jersey, also a signer of the Declaration. In April, 1777, he was made Surgeon-General of the Continental army for the Middle Department, and in July, 1777, was made Physician-General. He devoted himself to his duties with energy and intelligence, and succeeded in placing the affairs of his department in as satisfactory a condition as the means at the command of the Congress would permit. He was not able, however, to arrange every thing as his judgment assured him was best, and was subjected to many annoyances and great inconvenience by the incompetence and mismanagement of other officials, whom he could not control. The management of the hospital supplies of the army was especially defective, and was the cause of much suffering to the troops. He made repeated efforts to effect a reform in this particular, but failing to accomplish any thing, and indignant at the wrongs inflicted upon the soldiers, he resigned his commission and retired to private life.
During his connection with the army, he had watched the course of affairs in his native State with the keenest interest, and in a series of four letters to the people of Pennsylvania, called their attention to the serious defects of their Constitution of 1776, the chief of which he declared to be the giving of the legislative power to one house only. His appeals had the effect of bringing about an entire change in the form of State government, which was subsequently accomplished by a general convention of the people. After the close of the war Dr. Rush was elected a member of the State Convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States, and distinguished himself in that body by his earnest and brilliant advocacy of that instrument. He was also a member of the convention which adopted a new State Constitution, embodying the reforms he had advised in the letters referred to, and labored hard to have incorporated in it his views respecting a penal code and a public school system, both of which features he ably advocated through the public press.
With this closed his public career, which, though brief, was brilliant, and raised him to a proud place among the fathers of the Republic.
Returning to Philadelphia after resigning his position in the army, he resumed the practice of medicine, and with increased success. His personal popularity and his great skill as a physician brought him all the employment he could desire, and he soon took his place at the head of the medical faculty of the country.
In 1785 he planned the Philadelphia Dispensary, the first institution of the kind in the United States, and to the close of his life remained its warm and energetic supporter. In 1789 he was made Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine in the Philadelphia Medical College, and when that institution was merged in the University, in 1791, he was elected to the chair of the Institute and Clinical Medicine. In 1797 he took the professorship of Clinical Practice also, as it was vacant, and was formally elected to it in 1805. These three professorships he held until the day of his death, discharging the duties of each with characteristic brilliancy and fidelity.
The great professional triumph of his life occurred in the year 1793. In that year the yellow fever broke out with great malignancy in Philadelphia, and raged violently for about one hundred days, from about the last of July until the first of November. Nothing seemed capable of checking it. The people fled in dismay from their homes, and the city seemed given over to desolation. In the terrible "hundred days," during which the fever prevailed, four thousand persons died, and the deaths occurred so rapidly that it was frequently impossible to bury the bodies for several days. The physicians of the city, though they remained heroically at their posts, and labored indefatigably in their exertions to stay the plague, were powerless against it, and several of them were taken sick and died. Few had any hope of checking the fever, and every one looked forward with eagerness to the approach of the season of frosts, as the only means of saving those that remained in the stricken city.
At the outset of the disease, Dr. Rush had treated it in the same manner as that adopted by the medical faculty of the city; but the ill success which attended this course soon satisfied him that the treatment was wrong. He therefore undertook to subdue it by purging and bleeding the patient, and succeeded. The new practice met with the fiercest opposition from the other physicians, but Rush could triumphantly point to the fact that while their patients were dying his were getting well; and he continued to carry out his treatment with firmness and success. Dr. Ramsey, of South Carolina, estimates that Rush, by this treatment, saved not less than six thousand of his patients from death in the "hundred days." Nevertheless, the medical war went on with great bitterness, and the opposition to Rush became furious when he boldly declared that the fever was not an importation from abroad, as was popularly believed, but had been generated by the filthy condition of the city during the early part of the summer. Some time after the fever had subsided, a paper called "Peter Porcupine's Gazette," edited by William Cobbett, made a series of outrageous attacks upon Dr. Rush and his treatment of the fever. This exhausted the forbearance of the doctor, and he instituted a suit against Cobbett, in which he was successful, and secured a verdict of $5,000 damages against his defamer.
During the prevalence of the fever, Dr. Rush's labors were unceasing. He was constantly going his rounds, visiting the sick, attending sometimes over one hundred patients in a single day. He was called on at all hours of the day and night, and it may be said that he scarcely slept or enjoyed two hours, uninterrupted rest during the "hundred days."
PRESCRIBING AT THE BREAKFAST-TABLE.
For weeks he never sat down to his meals without being surrounded by dozens of patients, whose complaints he listened to and prescribed for as he ate. These were chiefly the poor, and at such times his house was literally thronged with them. He was a kind friend to them; rendering his services promptly and heartily, without the slightest wish to receive pay in return for them; and during all this terrible summer he was to be seen ministering to these poor creatures in the foulest, most plague-stricken quarters of the city, shrinking from no danger, and deterred from his work of mercy by no thought of his own safety. He has left us the following picture of the city during this terrible summer:
The disease appeared in many parts of the town remote from the spot where it originated; although in every instance it was easily traced to it. This set the city in motion. The streets and roads leading from the city were crowded with families flying in every direction for safety, to the country. Business began to languish. Water Street, between Market and Race Streets, became a desert. The poor were the first victims of the fever. From the sudden interruption of business, they suffered for a while from poverty as well as disease. A large and airy house at Bush-hill, about a mile from the city, was opened for their reception. This house, after it became the charge of a committee appointed by the citizens on the 14th of September, was regulated and governed with the order and cleanliness of an old and established hospital. An American and French physician had the exclusive medical care of it after the 22d of September.
The contagion, after the second week in September, spared no rank of citizens. Whole families were confined by it. There was a deficiency of nurses for the sick, and many of those who were employed were unqualified for their business. There was likewise a great deficiency of physicians, from the desertion of some and the sickness and death of others. At one time there were only three physicians able to do business out of their houses, and at this time there were probably not less than six thousand persons ill with the fever.
During the first three or four weeks of the prevalence of the disorder, I seldom went into a house the first time without meeting the parents or children of the sick in tears. Many wept aloud in my entry or parlor, who came to ask advice for their relations. Grief after a while descended below weeping, and I was much struck in observing that many persons submitted to the loss of relations and friends without shedding a tear, or manifesting any other of the common signs of grief.
A cheerful countenance was scarcely to be seen in the city for six weeks. I recollect once, on entering the house of a poor man, to have met a child of two years old that smiled in my face. I was strangely affected with this sight (so discordant to my feelings and the state of the city), before I recollected the age and ignorance of the child. I was confined the next day by an attack of the fever, and was sorry to hear, upon my recovery, that the father and mother of this little creature died a few days after my last visit to them.
The streets every-where discovered marks of the distress that pervaded the city. More than one-half the houses were shut up, although not more than one-third of the inhabitants had fled into the country. In walking, for many hundred yards, few persons were met, except such as were in quest of a physician, a nurse, a bleeder, or the men who buried the dead. The hearse alone kept up the remembrance of the noise of carriages or carts in the streets. Funeral processions were laid aside. A black man leading or driving a horse, with a corpse on a pair of chair-wheels, with now and then half a dozen relations or friends following at a distance from it, met the eye in most of the streets of the city, at every hour of the day, while the noise of the same wheels passing slowly over the pavements, kept alive anguish and fear in the sick and well, every hour of the night.
The population of Philadelphia at this time was but sixty thousand, and the reader will see that a loss of four thousand was a heavy percentage for so short a period.
Dr. Rush's skill and heroic conduct in his efforts to stay the ravages of the plague made him famous, not only in his own country, but throughout Europe, and during the latter part of his life he received most gratifying evidences of this fact. In 1805 the King of Prussia sent him a coronation medal, and the King of Spain tendered him his thanks for his replies to certain questions addressed to him concerning the causes and proper treatment of yellow fever. In 1807 the Queen of Etruria presented him with a gold medal as a mark of respect; and in 1811 the Emperor of Russia sent him a testimonial of his admiration of his medical character.
In 1799 he was made treasurer of the United States Mint, which position he held until his death.
Dr. Rush's writings were voluminous, and embraced a variety of subjects. His medical productions occupy a high place in the literature of the profession, and his political essays were one of the features of his day. He was a man of profound learning, and it is astonishing that one so constantly occupied with the duties of an engrossing profession should have found the time for such close and thorough general reading.
He was a sincere and earnest Christian, and held the Bible in the highest veneration. He wrote an able defense of the use of it as a school-book, and for many years was vice-president of the Philadelphia Bible Society, which he helped to establish, and the constitution of which he drafted. He held skepticism and atheism in the deepest abhorrence, and in his own life affords a powerful refutation of the assertion one hears so often, that profound medical knowledge is apt to make men infidels.
He died in Philadelphia on the 19th of April, 1813, at the good old age of sixty-eight, leaving a son who was destined to render additional luster to his name by achieving the highest distinction as a statesman.