|Benjamin Rush is often called the "Hippocrates of Pennsylvania" and "America's first psychiatrist." He championed humane treatment of the mentally ill in the early years of the American republic and wrote the first American textbook on psychiatry, Medical Inquiries and Observations on Diseases of the Mind (1812).|
Rush was born of a Quaker farm family, earned a B.A. from Princeton University at age 15, and received his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1768. He was very active in the political movements of his time and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
For a short time Rush was the surgeon general of the Continental Army under George Washington, but resigned due to political intrigue. This was really a plus for the mentally ill because Rush went back to Pennsylvania to practice medicine and there became familiar with the plight of those with psychiatric disorders.
At the Pennsylvania Hospital, where he was on staff, he followed Pinel's lead and worked for more humane housing for psychiatric patients. He also encouraged better hygiene for these patients and simple forms of occupational therapy. Rush wrote:
"For many centuries (the mentally ill) have been treated like criminals, or shunned like beasts of prey: or if visited, it has been only for the purpose of inhumane curiosity or amusement. Happily, these times of cruelty to this class of our fellow creatures and insensitivity to their suffering are now passing away. (At the hospital) the clanging of chains and the noise of whips are no longer heard in their cells."
It's important to remember that Rush felt that what we now call schizophrenia was a brain disorder. This conclusion was a triumph for American psychiatry of its day. However, Rush was mistaken on the specifics. He believed that the cause of the brain disorder was congested blood vessels in the brain, which could be triggered by things like dropsy, gout, pregnancy, or tuberculosis. Hence, unlike Pinel, Rush treated schizophrenia by bloodletting. Rush also had faith in the rotating chair invented by Erasmus Darwin in England a few years before.
Despite Rush's errors on specifics, there can be no doubt that his heart was in the right place - he was sincerely concerned with the suffering of the mentally ill. During his life, Rush was active in antislavery campaigns, prison reform, and established America's first free medical clinic for the underprivileged.
On his deathbed from typhus, Rush uttered the next to his last words to his son: "Be indulgent to the poor." Thus passed on a good man.