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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: Biomedical Library & 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

Black Clergy Assists Rush

Portrait of Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones (1746-1818), co-founder of the Free African Society

Portrait of Richard Allen

Richard Allen (1760-1831), co-founder of the Free African Society

On September 11, 1793, Jones and Allen put up an ad to assist physicians like Rush to fight against the epidemic.

"As it is a time of great distress in this city, many people of the Black colour, under a greatful rememberance of the favour received from the white inhabitants, have agreed to assist them as far as in their power for the nursing of the sick and burial of the dead." - Jones and Allen's ad (Fried, 355)

Benjamin Rush Yellow Fever 1793 Resource Page

Robert Thon's painting of Benjamin Rush during the yellow fever epidemic

Robert Thon's painting of Benjamin Rush during the yellow fever epidemic

This Yellow Fever page allows you to easily access Benjamin Rush’s almost-daily letters to his wife, Julia, who was safely away from the city with their children. From the calendar, you can see the actual handwritten letter he sent on each marked day (courtesy of Duke University Library Special Collections). From the “Letters of Benjamin Rush” link you can see every one of these letters fully transcribed and annotated by historian Lyman Butterfield from Vol 2 of “Letters of Benjamin Rush” courtesy of Princeton University Press. The page also includes links to all the original writing done on Yellow Fever by Rush and others at the time, and later books.

Portrait of Julia Stockton Rush

Julia Stockton Rush (1759-1848) 

Rush's Encounter with the Yellow Fever

One of Rush's letters during Yellow Fever

"The fever has assumed a most alarming appearance. It not only mocks in most instances the power of medicine, but it has spread through several parts of the city remote from the spot where it originated."

Rush vs. Yellow Fever

Rush began to notice signs of the yellow fever in Philadelphia. He remembered his time as Redman's apprentice during the 1762 yellow fever epidemic. He also remembered seeing fewer outbreaks since. In the beginning of August, Rush felt the fever is coming to Philadelphia. He noticed the fever broke out on Water Street, and killed 12 residents. He prayed the fever won't spread in the city, but the fever continued spreading block by block all the way to his house. 

He had a meeting with the College of Physicians to discuss about the growing epidemic, but many of them fled from the city. Rush began working vigorously day and night, but made little progress when more patients were dying. 

Towards the end of August, he began to realize the fever is everywhere. With so many doctors gone from Philadelphia, Rush was able to form a small team he could count on: 31-year-old Caspar Wistar (a former student of his and Shippen's) and one of his apprentices Johnny Stall. Rush also began experimenting treatments, including purging. He used salts and crème of tartar, but they were considered ineffective to opening the bowels. He then tried small amounts of calomel, mercury chloride, and jalap (Mexican tuber), downed with some chicken water/water gruel. He called his experiment "The Mercurial Antidote." 

Rush became angry at the doctors who were against his treatments. The doctors who were against it even decided to create their own remedies to cure the residents, with fresh air, mild purgatives, and laudanum or ammonia. Rush became even more upset when people were praising Dr. Edward Stevens' milder course of treatment after curing Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza from yellow fever. They even called it the "Federalist cure," after his treatment was published by the Federalist press.

As many fled away from the city, African American leaders, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, provided assistance for the physicians to fight against the epidemic. Rush was blessed to hear they can help fight against the disease. He even wrote a letter to Jones and Allen, thanking the two.

While working as much as he could, he wrote letters to Julia, telling her what had happened for the past few days during the epidemic. As a wife, Julia felt worried about Rush's survival. Rush even dreamt about Julia and his family during the epidemic. They kept writing letters to each other until the epidemic is over. 

As the fever slowed down, Rush and Julia were looking ahead to the future.

'When you have done the utmost to committing to the sick, something is due to your own family, whom you have not seen for these months and when the disease is going on there will be an interval in which you can be spared, and must come to us. Oh, with what joy will you be received by me, from whose thoughts you have never been for five minutes separated.' - Julia Rush (Fried, 366)

What Were the Guidelines and Procedures Taken to Prevent the Spread?

  • Avoid "unnecessary intercourse"
  • A mark should be placed on the door/window of any house with an infected person inside
  • Infected people were to be placed in the center of a large and airy rooms, in beds without curtains, their linens frequently changed and washed and "all offensive matters" removed from near them
  • For the poor- create a new "large and airy hospital"
  • The dead should be buried as privately as possible
  • Streets and wharves of Philadelphia should be kept clean to prevent "contagion"
  • Avoid "all fatigue of body and mind"
  • Avoid "standing or sitting in the sun" in a "current of air, or in the evening air"
  • Avoid dressing too warmly 

Yellow Fever FAQs

  • What was the cause of yellow fever?

Mosquitoes (aka the people's #1 enemies) are attracted to the summer heat, so they breed and transmit onto people. 

  • Where in Philadelphia did it begin?

By the Delaware River, north of Market Street, at the docks where imports were coming from Europe

  • What were the signs and symptoms of the fever?

Fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, yellow skin, vomiting

  • How long did the fever last?

Seasonal; From August to November when the cooler weather rise up

  • How many people died from the yellow fever?

5,000 people, 10% of Philadelphia's population

NEW! Access Rush Yellow Fever 1793 Letters!

Click on Book for Transcriptions & Annotations

Lyman Butterfield's Letters of Benjamin Rush, Volume 2

1793 Calendar

Click on Calendar For Rush’s Actual Handwritten Letters

Easy access to letters during the Yellow Fever from Duke University's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Calendar was created from Canva.com

Secondary Sources

Yellow Fever Speculation

Rush assumed the yellow fever came from the toxic air "produced by some damaged coffee which had putrefied on one of the wharves." (Fried, 348)