Rush, Benjamin

Named the "Father of American Psychiatry" by the American Psychiatry Association, Benjamin Rush was born in 1745 and spent his life in an avid pursuit of knowledge. Diverse and talented, he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, became a member of the Continental Congress and discovered the cure for yellow fever, and was actively involved charitable and activist organizations.

Definition/Life Highlights

"The United States have adopted these peaceful and benevolent forms of government. It becomes them therefore to adopt their mild and benevolent principles"
(Benjamin Rush in Runes, 1, 1947).

Taken from Rush's On Punishing Murder By Death, this quote exemplifies the attitude that Rush took towards a great deal of his work. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of a better society. This pursuit and his drive made him a legend in his own time as he made contributions in the medical field, politics, education, the abolition of slavery, and service to his country.

Historic Roots

Benjamin Rush was born in Byberry, Pennsylvania on December 24, 1745 and died in nearby Philadelphia on April 19, 1813. He lost his father at the age of six and, along with six siblings, was brought up by his mother who ran a grocery shop. His mother was determined that her children would be educated and, luckily for her, Benjamin was an avid learner. Entering scholarly life early, Rush dedicated himself to the pursuit of knowledge.

At the age of eight, Benjamin entered an academy conducted by his uncle, Reverend Dr. Samuel Finley (later, president of Princeton College in New Jersey). Finishing his education at Jersey College (which later became Princeton) before age 15, he received a bachelor of arts. There was hardly a topic that did not interest Rush. He became a man of many trades, among those a physician, teacher, writer, and politician. Rush never wasted a moment as the Colonial Hall: Biography of Benjamin Rush states, "He was never without a book, for, when he had no other, the book of nature was before him, and engaged his attention" (Vinci).

He married Julia Stockton in 1776, the year America gained independence. The couple eventually had 13 children, many of whom went on to make their own marks on history, as their father had.


Benjamin Rush was a philanthropist heavily involved in the betterment of society. He was recognized for his role as a member or leader of many organizations. These included the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first anti-slavery organization in the country. Rush also served in other positions: founder of the Philadelphia Bible Society, vice president of the American Philosophical Society, and member of many literary institutions in the United States and Europe. In addition, he was Treasurer of the United States Mint under President John Adams, and president of the Philadelphia Medical Society. He was honored for his various contributions to society by the King of Prussia, Queen of Etruria, and Emperor of Russia.

Aside from his critical role in stopping the progress of yellow fever, Rush did much to innovate the medical field. Most significantly, "he established the first free dispensary [medical clinic] in the United States" ( In this dispensary, called the Philadelphia Dispensary for the relief of the poor, doctors "gave hours of service for no pay" (Leitch, 2). Rush was inspired by the many private associations formed for the advancement of human welfare, for which Pennsylvania was well known.

His writings on education show a man that was ahead of his time. Rush pushed for a system of education that tied together the many residents of the United States as one people. He saw religion as the cohesive and moral factor. He believed that patriotism and one overlying identity were important in forming the young United States. As Rush stated in his Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic:

I proceed, in the next place, to inquire what mode of education we shall adopt so as to secure to the state all the advantages that are to be derived from all the proper instruction of youth; and here I beg leave to remark that the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in RELIGION. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object of life of all republican governments.

Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucious or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.
(Rudolph, 9, 1965)

Rush also thought that education should be rich in the arts and sciences and moral character. He felt the best education was one that was modeled off of the 'classical' education, which meant one that involved the learning of science, eloquence, Latin and Greek. His view of the best education was one that encouraged helping fellow citizens and was well-rooted in philanthropic ideals, the growth of the United States as a republic, and Christian morality.

Key Related Ideas

  • Abolition

  • Free medical clinics

  • Public education

  • Universal health care.

Important People Related to the Topic

Rush was the contemporary of such great thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Diderot and David Hume.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

The American Psychiatric Association, whose offical seal bears Rush's portrait, placed a bronze plaque at his grave in Philadelphia in 1965, designating him the Father of American Psychiatry.

Other nonprofit organizations to which Rush was affiliated include:

  • International Missionary Council

  • World Council of Churches

  • World Student Christian Association

  • YMCA of the USA

Related Web Sites

American Psychiatric Association:


Leitch, Alexander. "Benjamin Rush." A Princeton Companion, 1978: 1-3.

Rudolph, Frederick. Essays on Education in the Early Republic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Runes, Dagobert D. The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947.

Rush, Benjamin. An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and Mind. Boston: Thomas and Andrews, 1790.

---- "Rush, Benjamin." January 2000. History Channel.

Vinci, John. "Biography of Benjamin Rush." June 2000. Colonial Hall

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.