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Benjamin Rush Portal

A new way to explore Dr. Rush: Founding Father, Declaration of Independence Signer, Revolutionary War Surgeon General, Mental Health & Addiction Innovator, founder of Dickinson & Penn Med, & savior of the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

A Rush-Curious Collaboration

Inspired by “Rush: Revolution, Madness & the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father” by Stephen Fried (UPenn Class of 1979)

Rush: Revolution, Madness & the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father by Stephen Fried

Collaborators:

  • UPenn Libraries: Biotech Commons & Kislak Special Collections
  • Library Company of Philadelphia
  • Massachusetts Historical Society: Lyman Butterfield Collection
  • Duke University Special Collections
  • Princeton University Press
  • Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries
  • American Philosophical Society
  • College of Physicians
  • Founding Content Creators: Barbara Cavanaugh, Mitch Fraas, Stephen Fried
  • Founding Designer: Yen Ho

Rush's European Journals

Rush kept handwritten journals during his trip abroad. Below are typescripts of the journal he kept in Edinburgh and the one he kept in France. His journal from London is currently missing (but could be in a private collection.) 

Typescripts from the Lyman H. Butterfield collection shared with permission of Massachusetts Historical Society.

Studying Abroad in Europe

After 5 years of being Dr. John Redman's apprentice, Rush sailed abroad to England to begin his medical education at the University of Edinburgh. Rush was also expecting to reach out to Benjamin Franklin for letters of introduction to the proper medical authorities in Edinburgh.

The University of Edinburgh was considered the first school of physic, according to Rush, and he hoped to learn a lot from Dr. William Cullen. It turns out that Rush struggled with the separation of religion and science after learning about Cullen's views on religion. Cullen believed in the "'immaterialty and immortality of the soul.'" (Fried, 50). 

While studying abroad, Rush kept in touch with Dr. John Morgan. Morgan promised Rush that after he graduates, he would hold an opening for Rush to become the youngest member of his new Philadelphia Medical Society. Morgan and Dr. William Shippen, Jr. were still feuding with each other at the time. When Rush wrote his dedication in his thesis, he wrote Shippen's name first before Morgan's. Rush ended up writing an apology letter to Morgan, explaining to him why he put Shippen's name first. 

After graduating from the University of Edinburgh, Rush moved to London, and worked at Middlesex Hospital and St. Thomas's hospital alongside the surgical and anatomical legends: Drs. William Hunter and William Hewson. He also met Drs. John Pringle and John Fothergill, and painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. The most important person Rush was waiting to meet was Benjamin Franklin. 

Reynolds invited Rush to a dinner party where he would meet Dr. Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith.

Franklin sent Rush to Paris by giving him 200 pounds ($33,000) to spend for his trip. The person he first met in Paris was Dr. Jacques Dubourg, a close friend of Franklin. Dubourg brought him to be presented at the home of Victor de Riqueti, the Marquis de Mirabeau. 

The Death of James Cummins

Rush boarded on the ship Friendship to England with a fellow medical apprentice, Jonathan Potts (1745-1781), the son of John Potts, the founder of Pottstown, PA. Rush was not the only person who wanted a letter of introduction from Franklin after meeting Potts. During their trip to Liverpool, Rush and Potts met a Scottish merchant named James Cummins. Unfortunately, their friendship with Cummins didn't last long. 

Cummins left dinner early one night, saying he didn't feel well. When they got back to their lodgings-- the three of them were staying together in one room-- he was asleep. At midnight he awoke with what Rush called 'convulsion fitts,' evidently some form of seizure. Rush and Potts quickly bled him, which knocked him out, then called in more experienced local physicians for help. Rush hoped he and Potts had saved their friend, but Cummins lived less than twenty-four hours and died 'in the utmost agony.' (Fried, 47)

What happened to Jonathan Potts? 

He had to return to Philadelphia because of his fiancée, Gracey Richardson, who was carrying his child. He left school and arranged passage home. With delays trying to get home, he wasn't in time for the birth of their daughter, but he and Gracey were married. With his life changing, he studied and graduated at the College of Philadelphia as part of the first class of medical students.

Like Rush, Potts was a dedicated patriot, and supported the Revolutionary War in the 1770s. He became a physician and surgeon in the Continental Army in 1776 in the Northern Department. He contribution during the war as a doctor and a surgeon lasted until 1780 when he resigned. 

Dr. William Cullen

Portrait of Dr. William Cullen

Dr. William Cullen (1710-1790)

"'...chiefly owing to the extraordinary abilities & learning of Dr. William Cullen, a gentleman whose name & merit will be better known & more acknowledged a 100 years hence than it is at present.'" - Benjamin Rush (Fried, 49)

First Meeting with Benjamin Franklin

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Rush noted that Franklin "'once took me to Court with him and pointed out to me many of the most distinguished public characters of the nation. I never visited him without learning something.'

...Rush appeared to record almost everything Franklin ever said or did in his presence. This may be because Rush initially found himself confronting not just the heroic, mythic Franklin he always heard about as a child, but the actual, three-dimensional Franklin, who, at sixty-two, had some of the same self-control issues with women that young Rush recognized in himself." (Fried, 64-65)